Technology × Freedom

Cell Phones in 1947? Nope, Said Government

June 21, 2017 nitsuj

In considering whether the internet would exist without government funding, I concluded that not only would it likely still exist, but it really succeeded despite the government keeping it restricted for 26 years.

The internet wasn’t the only technology stunted by government involvement, however. As Thomas Winslow Hazlett explains in an article for Reason, the cell phone suffered the same fate at the hands of the FCC:

When AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not "in the nature of convenience or luxury." This view—that this would be a niche service for a tiny user base—persisted well into the 1980s. "Land mobile," the generic category that covered cellular, was far down on the FCC's list of priorities. In 1949, it was assigned just 4.7 percent of the spectrum in the relevant range. Broadcast TV was allotted 59.2 percent, and government uses got one-quarter.

Television broadcasting had become the FCC's mission, and land mobile was a lark. Yet Americans could have enjoyed all the broadcasts they would watch in, say, 1960 and had cellular phone service too. Instead, TV was allocated far more bandwidth than it ever used, with enormous deserts of vacant television assignments—a vast wasteland, if you will—blocking mobile wireless for more than a generation.

This is no surprise, as the FCC and government at-large don’t operate with market forces pushing them to be efficient or even successful. Instead, they prioritize specific industries and corporations, protected their interests and balance sheets from competition.