Since I began covering the sector in 1990, I’ve been waiting for Big Bang II. An adult flick? No, the sequel to Big Bang (aka the breakup of MaBell and the introduction of equal access) was supposed to be the breakup of the local monopoly. Well thanks to the Telecom Act of 1996 and the well-intentioned farce that it was, that didn’t happen and equal access officially died (equal access RIP) in 2005 with the Supreme Court's Brand-X decision vs the FCC. If it died, then we saw a resurrection that few noticed.
I am announcing that Equal Access is alive and well, albeit in a totally unexpected way. Thanks to Steve Jobs’ epochal demands put on AT&T to counter its terrible 2/3G network coverage and throughput, every smartphone has an 802.11 (WiFi) backdoor built-in. Together with the Apple and Google operating systems being firmly out of carriers’ hands and scaling across other devices (tablets, etc…) a large ecosystem of over-the-top (OTT), unified communications and traffic offloading applications is developing to attack the wireless hegemony.
First, a little history. Around the time of AT&T's breakup the government implemented 2 forms of equal access. Dial-1 in long-distance made marketing and application driven voice resellers out of the long-distance competitors. The FCC also mandated A/B cellular interconnect to ensure nationwide buildout of both cellular networks. This was extended to nascent PCS providers in the early to mid 1990s leading to dramatic price declines and enormous demand elasticities. Earlier, the competitive WAN/IXC markets of the 1980s led to rapid price reductions and to monopoly (Baby Bell or ILEC) pricing responses that created the economic foundations of the internet in layers 1 and 2; aka flat-rate or "unlimited" local dial-up. The FCC protected the nascent ISP's by preventing the Bells from interfering at layer 2 or above. Of course this distinction of MAN/LAN "net-neutrality" went away with the advent of broadband, and today it is really just about WAN/MAN fights between the new (converged) ISPs or broadband service providers like Comcast, Verizon, etc... and the OTT or content providers like Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc...
(Incidentally, the FCC ironically refers to edge access providers, who have subsumed the term ISPs or "internet service providers", as "core" providers, while the over-the-top (OTT) messaging, communications, e-commerce and video streaming providers, who reside at the real core or WAN, are referred to as "edge" providers. There are way, way too many inconsistencies for truly intelligent people to a) come up with and b) continue to promulgate!)
But a third form of equal access, this one totally unintentioned, happened with 802.11 (WiFi) in the mid 1990s. The latter became "nano-cellular" in that power output was regulated limiting hot-spot or cell-size to ~300 feet. This had the impact of making the frequency band nearly infinitely divisible. The combination was electric and the market, unencumbered by monopoly standards and scaling along with related horizontal layer 2 data technologies (ethernet), quickly seeded itself. It really took off when Intel built WiFi capability directly into it's Centrino chips in the early 2000s. Before then computers could only access WiFi with usb dongles or cables tethered to 2G phones
Cisco just forecast that 50% of all internet traffic will be generated from 802.11 (WiFi) connected devices. Given that 802.11’s costs are 1/10th those of 4G something HAS to give for the communications carrier. We’ve talked about them needing to address the pricing paradox of voice and data better, as well as the potential for real obviation at the hands of the application and control layer worlds. While they might think they have a near monopoly on the lower layers, Steve Job’s ghost may well come back to haunt them if alternative access networks/topologies get developed that take advantage of this equal access. For these networks to happen they will need to think digital, understand, project and foster vertically complete systems and be able to turn the "lightswitch on" for their addressable markets.