Carterfone, Then and Now

Most people have heard about Sen. Stevens series of tubes, but few people remember Cartfone, probably because most people using the Internet weren’t born in 1959 when Thomas Carter invented a device that let radio calls be fed through the telephone system, so oil riggers and the like could radio in telephone calls to home. Most Internet users weren’t born in 1968, either, when the FCC ruled that anybody (not just AT&T) could make devices to connect to the telephone network. Before that, your telephone equipment choice was basically a black brick with a dial, or a Princess phone that lit up. No wireless handsets, no cell phones, no answering machines, no faxes, no modems. The FCC ruling was necessary because when AT&T discovered Carterfone:
Then a monopoly, AT&T declared that any device that it didn’t make could potentially harm the network, even though about the only way to damage that era’s network of copper wires and electromechanical switches would’ve been with an ax.

FCC ruling from 1968 may have impact today, KEVIN MANEY, USA TODAY, February 1, 2007

Ancient history? Yes, but maybe worth repeating.

Of the FCC’s current net neutrality principles, the third is:

consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network;

FCC Adopts a Policy Statement Regarding Network Neutrality, TechLawJournal, 5 Aug 2005

Historically, we know how that worked before. When the FCC left the decision of what devices harm the network to AT&T, we know what we got.

Imagine what we could get if someone could make a device that could pull in TV signals from anywhere (broadcast or cable) along with Internet videos, voice, etc., and redistribute them anywhere over the Internet. A device that would also work with any wireless telephone carrier’s network. Hard to imagine? So was the Internet before the Carterfone decision. Maybe net neutrality isn’t just about tubes, maybe it’s also about faucets and kitchen sinks and lawn sprinklers.