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CAPTIVE AUDIENCE by Susan P. Crawford

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE

The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age

By Susan P. Crawford

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-300-15313-2
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A telecommunications policy expert draws parallels between today’s Internet providers and late-19th-century monopolies.

In most parts of the country, the choices for cable TV and/or high-speed Internet are extremely limited. This inherent lack of options, Crawford writes in her debut, “is the communications equivalent of Standard Oil.” For readers not well-versed in the history of monopolies and antitrust legislation, the author begins by detailing how monopolies arose in a number of industries (railroads, oil and steel among them) in the late 1800s and how President Theodore Roosevelt used the Sherman Antitrust Act to divide the Northern Securities Company railroad trust. Looking at the present day, Crawford claims that “all stages of the railroad story are repeated today in the context of Internet access.” As the country’s largest cable and Internet provider, Comcast is held up as a case study for all communications companies. Crawford examines Comcast in minute detail, from its founding to its recent merger with NBC/Universal. However, at times, this comes across as more grudge match than reasoned examination, particularly when the author takes swipes at Comcast’s founders and executives. “The Roberts family, like the Gilded Age families of the late nineteenth century,” effectively controls Comcast, and Crawford shoehorns in references to their Martha’s Vineyard home and penchants for playing squash. However, the author makes many important points. For example, Americans in large cities pay more money for slower Internet speeds than consumers in Japan or South Korea, while Americans in rural or poor areas are lucky to get high-speed access at all. This online inequity means “America will stagnate, while other countries rocket ahead.” Unfortunately, the book is continually weighed down by its prose. Loaded with technical details of Internet traffic and descriptions of federal regulations, Crawford's otherwise salient points become inaccessible to most lay readers.

Important themes obscured by jargon-filled writing.