“So was Bell Labs cost-effective? You will not find the answer in Mr. Gertner’s eulogy.”

March 18th, 2012

Mr. Gertner suggests that society would do well to re-create more Bell Labs. But trusting research to corporate monopolies is problematic in two ways. First, their money comes from overcharging customers by using monopoly power. (If you doubt that AT&T was overcharging, ask some old-timers how our mothers urged us to phone home after we arrived safely up at college—”Call, but hang up after letting the phone ring three times”; actually completing the call was too expensive.) Second, a corporate monopoly has little motivation to disrupt a market that it already dominates. AT&T had to be forced, starting in 1968, to let the nascent Internet connect to its telephone network; “Ma Bell” resisted every step of the way.

The author of a new book about Bell Labs forgets about its unseen costs–a topic explored well in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and in a post I wrote here.