Today marks the 100th anniversary of an agreement called the Kingsbury Commitment that embodied some of the most fundamental principles that underly our communications networks.
In honor of its 100th anniversary, it’s worth pausing to remember how the Kingsbury Commitment set a national goal to ensure interconnection and provide at least basic telephone service to all Americans. Our country has not wavered from that fundamental commitment since. As we now move into new IP-based phone networks and communications infrastructure, we must hold fast to this commitment to make sure no one is left behind in the phone network transition.
What Is The Kingsbury Commitment?
The Kingsbury Commitment is a deal struck in 1913 between American Telegraph & Telephone (now AT&T) and the Department of Justice, settling an antitrust investigation into AT&T’s market power, especially over long-distance phone service.
In 1913, the U.S. filed an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T to break up its growing monopoly in the phone service market. While Congress contemplated nationalizing the long distance telephone network, AT&T settled the antitrust lawsuit with the Kingsbury Commitment. In the Kingsbury Commitment, AT&T agreed to allow independent local telephone companies to interconnect with AT&T’s long distance network, divest Western Union, and refrain from purchasing other companies if the Interstate Commerce Commission objected.
The Kingsbury Commitment became one of the first federal actions underscoring the importance of interconnection to enabling competition among communications networks and the importance of ensuring network build-out to all Americans. Federal law subsequently recognized the significance of interconnection by requiring carriers to physically connect with one another and detailing the interconnection obligations of telecommunications carriers.
Service To All Americans In The 21st Century
Thus, through smart policy decisions guided by the basic principles of interconnection, service to everyone, and consumer protection (which Public Knowledge has paired with network reliability and public safety in our Five Fundamentals framework), our government seized the opportunity to create a telecommunications infrastructure that became the envy of the world. The story of the Kingsbury Commitment shows us that the core public interest features of our current network are not inherent physical characteristics of the materials used to build the networks or the protocols used on them, but rather are the result of policy decisions and rules that established the minimum public interest protections that society expected from carriers.
As companies now upgrade their networks to IP-based technologies, it remains no less important that our communications infrastructure serves everyone.
We as a nation have committed to bring at least some level of basic communications service to everyone, and we as a nation enjoy the benefits of a communications infrastructure that reaches everyone. It makes no difference what technical protocols the network is using–what matters is that our network continues to serve the public’s need to use communications technologies to conduct business, contact loved ones, and call for help in emergencies.
The Kingsbury Commitment and Competition Today
The Kingsbury Commitment’s decision to encourage service by mandating interconnection also became a crucial part of the U.S.’s competition policy for commuications networks. A requirement to interconnect with any device that did not harm the network gave consumers their first choice of telephone equipment in the history of the phone network—as well as enabling new innovations like answering machines and fax machines. Requirements to allow “electronic publishers” and other “enhanced service providers” to interconnect with and use the telephone network created a new universe of services that relied on the phone system like burglar alarms, medical alert systems, and voice mail.
Ultimately, the combination of these rules led to the creation of the dial-up modem and the Internet. Thus the seeds of today’s new networks were planted by the fundamental values embodied in this 1913 agreement.
More recent actions to promote competition, like the Telecommunications Act of 1996’s efforts to encourage facilities-based broadband competition, have only demonstrated that there is no guarantee that deregulation will lead to new competition, and competition in turn does not necessarily ensure all of the consumer benefits we have come to expect from basic phone service. Given this, it is crucial that policymakers not find themselves deregulating to the point where we are left with an even more consolidated market with no rules creating a minimum level of service and protection for users.
The Kingsbury Commitment’s anniversary reminds us that the success of our communications networks depends on our commitment to certain fundamentals public interest values. As we move forward into new technologies, these lessons do not change and our reliance on those values should remain.