Our friends Ozomatli, known for their eclectic, genre-bending sound and outspoken approach to civic engagement and activism, recently shared their thoughts on the AT&T-T-Mobile merger. Ozomatli are an LA-based band currently serving as U.S. State Department Cultural Ambassadors and artist advisors to FMC. The band will also be in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 25to play a can’t miss one-off show with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops at the Kennedy Center.
Back in the Ma Bell days, the only way to hear music on a telephone was if someone sang to you over the wires. In today’s world of smartphones and applications, however, a world of cultural expression is at our fingertips. From discovering new music, to watching videos of the latest developments in our community or across the world, to reading the up-to-the minute political and cultural news that matters to us — innovation, connection and even commerce are increasingly dependent on our access to the mobile Internet.
As a proud L.A. band immersed in our city’s diverse cultural expression, we believe that more people should have access to modern tools of communication at affordable prices. Our group, Ozomatli, depends on the exchange of ideas — musical and otherwise — with communities at home and abroad. In order to do that, it is critical that all the members of our community have reliable and affordable access to the mobile Internet.
You may have heard about a proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, which would give the combined companies a 43 percent share of the mobile market. Under this deal, AT&T and Verizon would control around 70 percent of cell phone subscriptions. If this merger goes through, we may very well be returning to the days of the original Bell monopoly and its exclusive command over access and innovation.
Unlike the Bell monopoly, this merger would impact more than phone service. Mobile handsets are quickly becoming one of the principal ways people connect to the Internet, and this trend is only going to continue. The Internet has long been an environment where anyone can create the next amazing program, website or service and the mobile Internet should be no different. Unfortunately, there’s a real worry this merger would leave just a few providers acting as gatekeepers and overseeing all access to information and creative expression on the mobile web.
The dangers of allowing telecommunications companies sole discretion over creative expression have already been demonstrated. In 2007, AT&T censored portions of a live Pearl Jam show because improvised lyrics critical to then-president George W. Bush were part of the performance. AT&T had the exclusive right to webcast the Lollapalooza festival where the band was performing, and chose to block speech. With more and more people using the mobile Internet to access information and opinions, the dangers of allowing one company to have such significant control over the information consumers can access on the mobile Internet are clear.
Another concern is affordability. Non-mobile broadband is currently dominated by the phone and cable companies. This so-called “duopoly” hasn’t done much to lower prices or increase speeds, despite promises made by Internet Service Providers more than a decade ago. Why should anyone expect that greater concentration in the mobile marketplace would result in cheaper, better service? What happens to prices when T-Mobile — for many a lower cost mobile alternative — gets absorbed by AT&T? The threat to consumers is evident. Fewer alternatives are likely to lead to higher prices —drastically limiting access for many who depend on their mobile devices as their primary connection to the Internet.
The impact of an increase in pricing for mobile Internet services would be acutely felt in L.A., where 46 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic. Currently, 51 percent of Latinos use their phones to access the Internet — as opposed to only 33 percent of whites. In addition, a full 19 percent of all 18-29 year-olds are cell-only wireless users. Increases in pricing would be a significant burden to these groups and could stifle their participation in creative expression and community organizing here at home.
Working musicians like us know the value of a dollar, as well as the high cost of limiting creative expression. We need to make it easier, not harder, for upcoming generations to meaningfully participate in important cultural and civic conversations.
The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice are currently examining the proposed merger, which could redefine how Americans of all backgrounds — including our city’s cultural ambassadors — participate in the Information Age. We hope they make a sound decision that will protect access and affordability for all.