The origins of the market in electronic communications lie with the development and exploitation of the telegraph around the middle of the 19th century. You will find an excellent account of the development of the telegraph and some of the lessons this holds for the modern world in Tom Standage’s book, The Victorian Internet (readily available via Amazon).
The telephone was invented (allegedly) by Alexander Graham Bell who in 1876 was granted a United States patent (174465) which in a mere six pages specified what are recognisably still the key features of the telephone system. You can see a copy of the patent at the USPTO Website. .
Superlatives almost become exhausted in describing Bell’s patent. It was the most heavily litigated award of all time with more than 600 law suits raised challenging its validity. Perhaps the most serious challenge was raised by the Western Union Telegraph Company which held a dominant position in the telegraph sector. This claim was settled in 1879 . Western Union accepted the validity of Bell’s patent and agreed to keep out of the telephone business. In order to maintain Western’s key business in the telegraph sector, Bell agreed not to use the telephone business for ‘transmission of general business messages, market quotations, or news for sale or publication in competition with the business of Western Union.’ Other challenges persisted but in what was only the second most significant event of the year 1888 its validity was upheld by the US Supreme Court, (The Telephone Cases 1888 U.S. 1) in what is reportedly the longest judgement delivered in US patent history (some 197,000 words). The patent has frequently been described as the most valuable grant of all time.
The concept of monopoly was for a long time closely linked with the provision of electronic communications. In most countries of the world the services were provided under a state monopoly and in the United States even after the expiry of its original patent protection the Bell telephone company exerted a de facto private sector monopoly, although from a relatively early stage the telephone system was subject to regulation with the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and more significantly the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934. This can be considered the world’s first telecommunications regulatory agency and in many respects it has served as a prototype for subsequent developments in Europe and elsewhere over the last twenty years.
In this theme we will look at some of the factors which have driven the development of telecommunications legislation paying particular attention to developments within the United Kingdom. These are hopefully of relevance beyond the United Kingdom as much of the modern European telecommunications legislation has followed what was a pioneering path adopted by the United Kingdom in the 1980s involving opening markets up to competition and developing regulatory mechanisms...