The rampant flu that’s been sweeping the state this winter swept through our house last week turning the TV room into an electronic isolation ward. 165 digital cable channels during the day gives you a choice of 145 re-runs, 15 talk shows and 5 soap operas. Fortunately the Sci-Fi channel re-runs Star Trek 4 times a day. They inspired me. I’ve decided after last week that I want to be the first kid on my block to have a transporter room. You know, one of those swirly light things where you can say “Scotty, beam me up” and vaporize into the galaxy though I doubt I’ll head for Vulcan or Romula, mine is going to say “Bahamas, beam me down!”
Go ahead and laugh but just over 30 years ago when we were adjusting the rabbit ear antennas on our first generation of color TVs trying to get a clear picture of the Starship Enterprise boldly going where no human had gone before who would have though we’d already have hand-held tricorders? I’ve got one and it’s great. Using the voice activated software on my Star-Tac digital wireless phone, designed to look remarkably like a certain stuck-up Vulcan’s, faster than I can say “Kirk to Enterprise” something my children have begged me to stop doing in public, I am connected to my office. While I can’t waive it over my body to find out what ails me yet, I can send e-mail to www.medhelp.org and somebody on the other end will try to cure me. Connect it to a camera on my computer and I can conference with the Fleet Commander any time I want. That’s all packed into my 2-ounce communicator. An instrument that has only been on the market for about 3 years. So I don’t think it will be long before we can call 1-800-SPOCK and have our very own transporters delivered to our homes.
Of course, there will be issues. The first is who carries the bodies around. In the early stages it’ll probably be the phone companies. With the first generation of transporters you’ll have to vaporize through a wire. With cable already so crowded and customer service so bad you don’t want to travel over those lines. You’ll want a dedicated carrier, a carrier you choose, a company you trust, because if you don’t come out right on the other end it’s going to be really tough to call the customer service department. Cable companies don’t even have those. In Pennsylvania that’s going to be a problem. Transporter service will probably end up being regulated by the state Public Utility Commission, an agency that boldly goes where none has gone before at warp speed, unfortunately in reverse.
Right now if you wanted to hook up your transporter to your telephone for long distance you’d have a choice of at least 16 companies. Ski buffs in Pittsburgh who wanted to get their last chance this winter in the Poconos could choose their carrier in a flash. But if you’re in Allentown rushing to get to a meeting in nearby Bethlehem you’ll have to transport through Bell lines to avoid the eternal traffic jams on route 22. From Bethlehem if you want to weekend in Erie that’ll be a challenge. Your transporter will have to connect through Bell then switch over to a long distance carrier. Oh sure you can choose your own, AT&T, Sprint, MCI or one of the second string competitors. The concern is what happens if the switching isn’t right while your body is a zillion bytes of digitized ether traveling across the state? Parts of you could end up anywhere or worse yet, not come out attached where they are supposed to be on the other end.
That’s not Bell’s fault. For more than two years Bell has been trying to open up long distance markets to competition. The reverse effect is that if those markets open up the big long distance hitters that aren’t interested in local business will automatically be transported into the local phone business. In New York State where the markets are beginning to de-regulate the biggest problem has been Bell’s inability to connect their local customers to their competitors fast enough. In New York and other states customers can have one carrier, one bill, one set of services, so that when you set up your own transporter and start beaming around if it doesn’t work right you can have only one carrier to blame. That is if your ear bone and mouth bone are connected to your head bone when the trip is over.
Late last year the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission wanted to break Bell into two companies. One for local service, one for long distance. Restoring the telecommunications status quo right back to where it was – in 1969. That idea was so bad the PUC itself withdrew it leading to hope that the markets would soon open themselves up. That’s when AT&T took a break from buying unregulated cable systems and MCI-Sprint-Worldcom took a break from buying each other and filed suit in Commonwealth Court trying to block the PUC from blocking Bell.
Even if Bill Gates and Steve Case have Captain Picard announce a new joint venture tomorrow to bring transporters to every living room to flash people around by phone lines you can’t risk having one in Pennsylvania. It’ll be years before we can beam from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in one easy step. But don’t lose hope. The technology swirls past governments. Someday the regulators and the courts will see that there is only one thing that the government will be able to do well with technology regulation. The only thing that governments consistently do well: tax it. When they have those formulas down and start collecting the revenue the markets will open up, there will be true competition and you can choose the transporter carriers that you trust. And yes, when those frigid Pennsylvania winters hit and the kids are sick and the TV is boring you can snap open your communicator, grab the sun block and its “Bahamas beam me down!”