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The new OPEC: AT&T, Comcast and friends

By Peter Nowak, CBCNews.ca

There's a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times today by Columbia law professor Tim Wu on the new telecommunications cartel - OPEC 2.0 he calls it - where companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Vodafone are using their total control over bandwidth to choke access to the precious commodity.

Just as North Americans are only now starting to cope with high gas prices and the inevitable search for alternative fuels, Wu argues that we need to start thinking about alternative bandwidth to avoid a similar situation with phone and cable companies. It's an especially poignant point since the average American family spends more per month on bandwidth, or the capacity to move information around, than it does on gas and oil, he says.

One solution Wu suggests is the freeing up of airwaves - or spectrum - by the government, which has thus far treated them as a scarce commodity. In fact, he argues, at any given time about 90 per cent of the spectrum in the United States sits unused, which means that "Soviet-style rules create waste that is worthy of Brezhnev." If the airwaves were opened up to entrepreneurs, tons of new available bandwidth would pop up through the ensuing competition. The end result: lower prices for things like cellphones and internet access.

Wu's suggestions, however, are sure to run counter to warnings by some health authorities, who say using cellphone microwaves can cause cancer. Increasing wireless usage would logically raise the risk of cancer, by their reasoning.

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