International Telecommunications Handbook
Artech House Inc, 1995, £55
419pp, ISBN 0 89006-568-3
Date of publication: 7 May 1996
Citation: Scott, C (1996), 'Rob Frieden's International Telecommunications Handbook', Book Review, 1996 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/elj/jilt/bookrev/2scott/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1996_2/scott/>
Review of International Telecommunications Handbook
Georges Perec once wrote a novel in French which completely avoided the use of the letter 'e'. In Rob Frieden's strange book on international telecommunications he has attempted something similar: a book in which all the main concepts begin with the letter 'c'. Thus the principal chapter in setting out the issues in telecommunications explores 'the rule of multiple Cs': consensus/compromise; collaboration; consultation; culture; clubbiness; cooperatives/consortia/cartels/collusion; constraints/comity; commingled costs/cross-subsidies; closed or conditional market access; corporatization; change. Thus for the student, at whom this book seems to be chiefly addressed, taking examinations is made easier as key concepts beginning with other letters of the alphabet can be immediately dismissed. My complaint is not that these concepts are unimportant, but rather that the author places an artificial constraint on his all too brief analysis of these concepts.
Taking one of these concepts, 'change', Frieden asserts that
'The international telecommunications marketplace has begun to change at an increasingly speedy rate, paralleling the changes experienced in the United States over the last 25 years.'
A footnote takes us to an inapposite 1988 quotation from one K. Hoyt which suggests that the such change is felt 'especially in Europe and particularly in Germany' with causation being attributed to changing technology and 'the rise of the consumer as the master of the economic society' (p19, fn7). Although the thrust of Frieden's description of change seems broadly correct, emphasising the conditional opening of telecommunication markets to competition and the reduction of the scope of government ownership, the explanations for change are lacking, beyond very general platitudes. The book is littered with lengthy and inapposite quotations from articles and books which frequently do not fully support the proposition in the text. A further example is the citation to K. Wilson's attack on the hegemony of economics in telecommunications policy ((1992) 14 Media Culture and Society 343) for the definition of natural monopoly in telecommunications. Wilson's whole aim is to undermine not support the economist's view of the world. Frieden rarely seems to challenge this world-view.
The International Telecommunications Handbook contains some useful nuggets of information about the challenges facing international telecommunications markets but tends to lack coherence and focus in its approach. Frieden makes it clear that the study of telecommunications must necessarily be an interdisciplinary undertaking, but though he briefly caricatures some of the relevant disciplines he nowhere attempts any synthesis. It is as if he wandered round a supermarket, put eggs, sugar, flour and chocolate in his trolley, but could not work out how to make a chocolate cake from his ingredients. It is interesting to note that one of the master-chefs in this field (telecommunications, not cake-making), Eli Noam, is among those thanked at the beginning.
Implicit and sometimes explicit in Frieden's discussion of in chapter 3 of the different national models of telecommunications provision and prospects for international competition is a chauvinist view that the United States provides the "progressive" and best model. Such a claim seems to neglect the extent to which US policy fails to live up to its own liberal rhetoric. Until very recently the US authorities refused to licence foreign firms to operate full telecommunications services in the US (this is discussed in the text at pp341-2), and segmented the market in such a way that nearly all residential customers were served by local monopolists, though with some degree of choice in relation to long- distance carriers. To be fair, Frieden does follow his own logic to some degree, asserting that New Zealand is at the real cutting edge (p46), having privatized and liberalised without setting up any new regulatory standards or regulatory authority for the telecommunications sector. But it is apparent that this radical experiment has failed and the New Zealand government is urgently considering the introduction of new regulatory principles which are now seen as a sine qua non for the development of effective competition.
Much of the body of the book is concerned with exploring international coordination of telecommunications through the International Telecommunications Union, and the development of satellite policy. This provides a wealth of useful information which is not readily available elsewhere. It is perhaps disappointing that the author did not engage in any new research in these areas, for example interviewing key players, to secure a better understanding of change in the international policy-making arenas. The accompanying discussion of regional standard-setting bodies is rather too sketchy to be useful, and even the research using secondary resources is inadequate in respect of the important developments in standard-setting and infrastructure development in the European Union. A book published in 1996 might well have taken into account the new entrants to the Union on 1 January 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden) rather than retaining them as pencilled in for joining in 1996 (p290) (together with Norway which rejected membership in a referendum in the Autumn of 1994). The claim that the Single European Act 1986 permits "the European Commission's Legislative Council to take decisions affecting unification by majority vote rather than unanimity" (p291) would send shudders through the chancelleries of Europe were it true. The correct position is that measures aimed at completing the single market (under Article 100A of the EC Treaty) may be adopted by a qualified majority of the Council of Ministers. The (Maastricht) Treaty on European Union, which came into force in 1993 and receives no mention in the text, further amended the legislative process giving the Parliament a right of veto over single market legislation, which veto was actually exercised to reject the Directive on the Application of Open Network Provision to Voice Telephony in 1994. The Directive was re-presented and finally adopted towards the end of 1995. The author is very hung up on "Europe 1992" neglecting the fact that Europe has moved on and agreed to liberalization of both services (extending to voice telephony) and infrastructure by 1998. More generally the author's researches into regulatory reform outside the US is too sketchy to be adequate for understanding what is happening. In respect of the UK the information available to the author was simply outdated and inaccurate. He suggests that the UK remains subject to a duopoly between BT and Mercury until 1997 (p271), when in fact the British government indicated that it would be willing to licence any competitor in 1992 and in practice this has resulted in more than 150 Public Telecommunications Operators being licensed to compete with the duopoly players in some or all parts of their operations. Notably BT has many competitors in the 'local loop' provided by cable tv companies, and a number of firms are competing in the long-distance and international markets. The author does not understand that amendments to licences are not equivalent to amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1984 (p. 298).
It will always be difficult for an author working in one jurisdiction and writing about another to satisfy those working in that other jurisdiction. However the extent of misconception and the failure to update the material relied on in relation to the EC and the United Kingdom should make one approach data in this book which does not relate to the United States and international organisations with some degree of caution. The author knows a great deal about US and international telecommunications policy, but ultimately fails to marshall this knowledge into an authoritative text.