How the Scottish Labour party got telecoms policy right in 1895

Via someone on twatter, Parliament debates telecoms regulation, in 1895. The superficial bit:

there was a great distinction between telephones and such subjects as gas and water. Gas and water were necessaries for every inhabitant of the country; telephones were not and never would be. It was no use trying to persuade themselves that the use of telephones could be enjoyed by the large masses of the people in their daily life. [An hon. MEMBER: “America.”]

He did not think his hon. Friend was aware of the fact that in the large towns of America subscribers had to pay £40 to £50 for the service which a subscriber in London obtained for from £10 to £20. He went further and said that in a town like London, or Glasgow, or Belfast, an effective telephone service would be practically impossible if the large majority of the houses were furnished with telephones, so great would be the confusion caused by the increased number of exchanges. He was not stating his own opinion, but that of experts.

You’ve got to love the appeal to nameless experts there, and the general 640K-ness. But there’s more, and as this evening’s unstated theme is turning out to be “blog about why things everybody agrees on don’t get on the ballot”, it’s worth reading on.

For a start, they’re debating the question of whether cities ought to be allowed to run their own networks, a topic which is just as fresh today as it was then. Everyone agrees that a private-sector monopoly is undesirable, but is the answer muni-fibre (well, muni-copper), regulation and a universal-service fund, a nationalised industry, or something else? The minister, Arnold Morley, argues that it’s mostly a national-level or even supranational (he says imperial) infrastructure issue. Glasgow Labour MP A. C. Corbett makes a vigorous case for municipal socialism in telephony as in everything else. Sir J.E. Gorst sketches out the situation, which is almost as much of a mess as UK telecoms policy is now. A good row is fought out about who is responsible.

A. D. Provand, yet another Glasgow MP, invents settlement-free peering 100 years early and points up the difference between peering and termination:

The terminals would operate in this way: If, for example, London had a telephone licence, it could not send a message to Brighton unless Brighton had also an exchange, which would deliver the message free, otherwise the London message would he delivered through the present Company at Brighton, which would charge a terminal for doing so, The effect of that would lie to double the rate between London and Brighton.

And A.C. Corbett basically hits on the solution everybody who’s seriously thought about it prefers: open access to shared civil infrastructure! But why put up with the open access bit when the town hall can run the whole thing?

It had been suggested that where underground telephones were necessary, and where it was impossible for the municipality to entrust the control of the streets to any private corporation working for profit, that the municipality should lay these underground wires and take all the care of them. If the municipality was to lay the wires and take all the care of maintenance, there was no possible reason why the municipality should not take over all the undertaking and derive all the profit to be got from it.

Then again, once you’ve got the rights-of-way and the ducts in the public hand, you can do both, like Singapore’s NBN.

Well, at least we were spared the private sector monopoly…until we got it anyway. It is pretty astonishing, though, when you think of some of the places that have got 150Mbps FTTH networks and some of the places that have already sorted out LTE spectrum, and then of the UK. Agenda-setting is a powerful force.

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