by Peter G. Miller
In the world of the future, telephone
lines, Internet access, electric power
and cable services will all be delivered
to us by a single provider, if we
are to believe a growing number of
seers, soothsayers, power companies,
cable firms and electric utilities.
The advantage, it's explained, is
that people want one-stop shopping
and all costs will be on a single
bill. And the connected future, we
are told, is not too many years away.
This is the moment when a tremor
of doubt begins to sneak in. Somehow
I'm not so sure I want everything
from one company. While I'm certain
each company is comprised entirely
of good folks and is charitable too,
the idea of combining basic services
holds no thrill for me.
Go back a few generations and a typical
household had one phone, typically
a black, indestructible instrument
operated with a dial. The next generation
likely had two phones -- one in the
kitchen and another in a bedroom.
This generation seems to have one
or two personal lines with extensions
everywhere -- as well as separate
lines for a computer, fax and home
Although phone lines have increased
to the point where we have a number
shortage in some areas, it's not the
volume of phone lines which is a concern,
rather it's the one-stop approach
that raises questions of reliability
Over the weekend, for example, we
had one of the thunderstorms for which
the local area is famous. One bolt
hit a local office building and the
result was an Internet connection
which reached all the way to the basement
-- but no further. Meanwhile, in the
same building, the phone and electrical
service were fine.
Now imagine if one company provided
all common services. Would they all
work? Would none of them work? Would
some be "on" while others
Rather than play connection roulette,
is it not better to have a redundant
system so that if one system goes
out the others will remain working
and available? Is it not better to
let companies specialize in one field,
so they can put all their energy into
getting that service right?
The idea of combining phone, electric,
cable and Internet bills onto one
monthly statement will produce all
the clarity of a new car sale. Have
you looked at your phone bill lately?
Is it longer or shorter than your
income tax return? The idea that one
bill will be clearer than three or
four others is an illusion; what we
might end up with is one statement
will the details of all four bills,
none of which make a great deal of
sense by themselves.
No less important, the fact that
bills are combined does not mean costs
would go down. Instead, you would
expect competitive services to have
low prices while monopoly services
would rise and rise -- think of cable
Imagine if a local monopoly controlled
not just your phone, cable or electric
service, but all three -- and Internet
access to boot. Do you think a local
monopoly would improve service? Hire
more workers? Keep down costs? Invest
in new technologies?
There are also security reasons to
prefer separate systems from separate
providers. Think of the huge Northeast
blackout a few years ago. The power
was out -- but the phones worked.
Lastly there is the matter of privacy.
Do you really want one company to
know who you call, what you watch
and where you surf? Is that not a
So when folks start to tell you of
all the wonders to be created by one-stop
shopping and fewer power lines, ask
what you would really prefer: Fewer
lines or more reliable services, high
monopoly costs or low costs from competition.
The choice may soon be yours.