HAVING been dependent for many years on the courtesies and whims of foreign governments for communication facilities, especially in time of war, the Government and the business world of the United States have long desired direct channels of world-wide communication independent of foreign control. The only practical way to accomplish this was by establishing an extensive American system of radio-telegraphy. Within the past six years, American private enterprise and initiative in this field have brought about a development that stands without parallel, and have given America direct communication with Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Norway, the Argentine, Japan, Java and Hawaii, which before long will be extended to Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, China, French Indo-China and Australasia.

This American system is comparable in its extent to the great British cable network. More than half a century ago Great Britain began to lay the submarine cables which now connect it with the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia. This development was due in large part to the needs of commerce and defense for the British Empire. The predominance of England in the cable world and her control of practically all the systems is due to the foresight of both the British Government and of British capital in anticipating the rôle that cable communications would play in the development of commerce. They preëmpted the cable field, took the leadership in the arts of cable manufacture and operation, and dominated the essential supply of gutta-percha. The extent of her proprietorship gives England control of the cable communications of the globe, and in time of war that country is as much the mistress of the cables as she is of the seas. Moreover, when communications are relayed through a third country, there arises the thought, often unjust, that such relays afford the intermediary country certain political and commercial advantages.

American-owned cable interests have displayed great and patriotic energy in extending their own systems, especially to Central and South America, the West Indies and the Orient, but the supremacy of Great Britain still remains unchallenged. It is indeed scarcely possible to develop an American cable system comparable with the vast network that spreads out from the British Isles. Even were the enterprise undertaken, it could not provide the same direct communication, for, unlike the widely scattered British Empire, we do not possess the necessary landing places on territory of our own. With few exceptions, American cables must land on alien shores, and in the event of hostilities -- be we either belligerent or neutral -- would be subjected to annoying censorship, with corresponding delay or even complete interruption of service. From an economic standpoint, again, cables paralleling and competing with the British system would entail needless and unprofitable duplication of facilities.

For many years American business was satisfied with its markets at home and did not appreciate the opportunities offered abroad. The absence of ample and uncontrolled communications meant little or nothing to the American business man and American capital saw no opportunity for profit in investments in cables. In the early part of this century, American business began to seek foreign fields. But though it felt the necessity of direct and quick intercourse with foreign markets, the gravity of the situation was not fully impressed upon our people until the World War. The United States then discovered the disadvantage of foreign control of cables. The necessity of a telegraph service of our own became apparent to both the Government and the business community. The inconvenience of depending on a system controlled in peace or war by any foreign nation in accordance with its own wants or desires emphasized the need for direct communication between the United States and the various countries of Europe.

In the seven eventful years which have followed the World War, years replete with problems of reconstruction and readjustment of political and economic conditions, the United States has learned that it must unceasingly seek world trade if it is to maintain the commercial and financial supremacy which it gained during that conflict. As a result of the war, our production facilities were vastly increased and we could no longer absorb the output of our factories and farms. We were confronted by the necessity either of diminishing that output, limiting our industrial and agricultural development to the capacity of our domestic market, or of seeking in overseas trade a field sufficient for our surplus production. The latter was the only logical solution of the problem and the only one in accord with our character and traditions.

To-day the American business man has come to think of his market as situated not only in the United States but in Europe, Central and South America, Japan, China, the Near and the Far East. He must have world-wide communication, and its channels must be direct, reliable, inexpensive, uncensored, free from foreign interference or intentional delay -- in a word, entirely American. A system passing through other lands and requiring a relaying of traffic is inevitably subject to delays, interruptions and uncertainties in time of peace, and much more in time of war when quick communication is of vital importance. Fortunately, technical advances in radio-telegraphy have reached such a point that it is feasible to span the vast distances of the oceans separating the United States from its foreign markets by direct radio circuit.

Radio-telegraphy, due to the genius of Marconi, made its appearance during the closing years of the last century and was first used as a means of telegraphic communication between ship and shore, and between ship and ship. In New York Harbor, in October of 1899, he demonstrated to America the practicability of his system. For a number of years the distance that could be spanned by radio was so short that it was restricted to marine use. Radio coastal stations were constructed in growing numbers and the list of ships equipped with radio increased from year to year, till it has become an obligatory part of the equipment. Many times wireless telegraphy has been the means of saving human life, of bringing aid to vessels in distress and lessening the perils of those who go down to the sea in ships. It is now an invaluable aid to navigation.

In 1902 Marconi sent the historic SSS across the Atlantic from the west coast of Ireland to Nova Scotia. In 1907 the first transatlantic radio circuit was initiated by the English Marconi Company and a year later this circuit was opened by it to the public for communication between England and Canada. In 1911 it was extended to the United States through the American land-line telegraph companies. Although the service in those days was not as efficient and reliable as that of the cable, which had had a period of more than fifty years in which to develop, it demonstrated the commercial possibility of radio as a means for long distance communication. The technical difficulties that had to be overcome before it was available were many and formidable. Only after American ingenuity and inventiveness had produced and developed to a state of commercial usefulness the high-frequency alternator and the three-electrode vacuum tube, did an American world-wide system of radio-telegraphy become a possibility.

Meanwhile, the British Government fostered a project for a chain of radio stations to girdle the globe and to connect all parts of the British Empire by direct circuits to London. With the coöperation of the British-controlled Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, several powerful stations were constructed in the United States and one in Hawaii, and plans were made to extend the network to South America and China. But the pioneers in transoceanic wireless telegraphy were confronted with the formidable competition of the well entrenched system of cable communications. Had they realized their ambitious plans, there would now be two British systems, one cable, the other radio, spanning the earth, both supporting the British endeavor to dominate the world's communications. Although they would compete with one another commercially, British ownership would render them invaluable agents for British supremacy in finance and business.

The present imperial chain of radio stations contemplated since 1919-20 is a revival of the project. The British Government will own and operate it but the earlier idea of a direct circuit from London to the farthest dependency has been given up for a chain with much shorter links extending from London eastward to British South Africa, Egypt, the Near East, India, China, the Far East and Australia, and westward to Canada.

Great Britain was not alone in projecting a widespread wireless system. In 1913 Germany, influenced both by military and commercial considerations, planned a series of radio circuits to extend from its great stations at Nauen and Eilvese to Sayville in the United States, Alaska, South America, Africa, to the Near and Far East, to Australasia and to China. Taking into consideration the state of technical development at that time and the distances between some of these stations, occasional communication at slow speeds was all that could be expected, so they would seem to have been intended for propaganda and for military purposes rather than for commercial use. The World War disrupted this ambitious plan almost at its inception.

France also has a far-reaching scheme which is not planned entirely along commercial lines, as it is intended primarily to keep her dependencies and colonies in direct touch by radio with the seat of government. Several powerful stations have already been built and more are in process of erection. It is interesting to note that in the commercial part of the French and German projects greater weight is given to the value of South American traffic than in the British project.

The possibility of an extensive American system was first publicly suggested at a joint meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers held in New York City in February, 1916. A paper was presented which outlined the activities of the Navy Department in establishing a network of radio stations extending from the United States to the Canal Zone, to Honolulu and the Philippine Islands, and which proposed to use these stations for commercial as well as military purposes and to connect them with stations in Central and South America. During the World War the Navy Department took possession of all stations in the United States and its dependencies and operated such of these as it needed for both Government and commercial business. It was during the period of the naval operation of these stations that the Alexanderson high frequency alternator and improved radio receivers made wireless communication over great distances for the first time continuous, dependable and economical, -- in other words, commercial.

Subsequent to the war, in 1919, conditions in the field of radio development in the United States were such that, if progress was to be made, a unification of existing interests was essential. This unification was effected, at the suggestion of the Navy Department, by the organization of the Radio Corporation of America, which purchased the stations and other property of the British-controlled Marconi Company of America, brought together the rights under important United States patents covering radio, and initiated direct commercial radio service across both the Atlantic and Pacific. The number of countries with which the United States is now in direct communication has been increased from five in 1920 to eleven in 1926 and four more will be added to the list in the near future. New York has become the center of radio communications as London has been that of cable communications. As a result of radio competition, cable rates have been lowered and the service improved.

In most countries electric communication systems are owned and operated by governments primarily in order to meet their political and military needs rather than the commercial requirements of their citizens, and for government use rather than for an adequate return on the capital invested. In other countries there are privately owned electric communication systems, operated with a view to meeting the needs of the business community, but the return on invested capital is restricted by arbitrary government limitation. In the United States electric communication systems are operated by private companies with a view to giving the maximum service to commercial interests and securing for invested capital a reasonable return, limited by competition and governmental regulation of rates.

In the United States, any system of electric communication open to general public use is of necessity a species of public utility. As such, certain privileges are extended to it by the municipal, state or national authority which licenses its activities. These privileges may include a grant of exclusive use of public highways and property, and the right to occupy and use private property after adequate compensation. Radio communication systems must of necessity use the ether. The White and Dill bills now pending in Congress declare that that part of the ether in or above the territorial limits of the United States is the property of the American people and can only be used by license of the Secretary of Commerce.

This same doctrine regarding the ownership of the ether is maintained by most nations and has become a part of international law. The ether in or above parts of the earth not subject to the jurisdiction of any nation should be free to international use, in the same way as the high seas. The question of regulation of its use is one for future international agreement. The number of channels available for high-power long-wave radio-telegraphy is quite limited, and as yet they are the only ones suitable for reliable commercial communication across the oceans. The use of short waves for successful long-distance commercial communication is still a problem for the future. Long-wave high-power stations represent investments of millions of dollars. Obviously it is both inexpedient and economically impractical to have more than one such system for each country on account of the limited number of ether channels available, the large amount of capital required to build these stations, and the constant need of new capital for improvements and replacements of apparatus due to the rapid rate at which radio equipment becomes obsolete. Unless existing systems receive some degree of governmental protection from unnecessary and uneconomical competition, and unless capital has some assurance of the continuance of this protection, the future of an American world-wide system is imperilled. The Government and the business world might then be left without ample uninterrupted international communications in time of war or the threat of war.

Our government, in its control of public utilities, has recognized the distinction between regulation and management, which has become a rule of law established by decisions of the Supreme Court.[i] The position of the United States on the subject of ownership and management of electrical systems of communications was ably set forth by Mr. Allen H. Babcock, delegate of the United States to the Inter-American Conference on Electrical Communications held in Mexico City in July, 1924. He said:

"The issue which has developed in this conference is fundamental: viz. The extension of electrical communications by Government ownership versus the development of such communication under private ownership and management.

"In accordance with the provisions of its Constitution, there are certain fundamental principles to which the United States has always adhered. These principles form the basis of its national policies and must be observed by the United States in its international undertakings and agreements.

"The United States, while recognizing the right of each government to determine its own policy with regard to the ownership and operation of its electrical communications, advocates the principle of private ownership and management, subject to just and reasonable governmental supervision. This is the basis upon which the comprehensive communication systems of the United States have been developed. In the United States measures adopted for the protection of public interests conform with the principle that the governmental supervision of private enterprises must be general in character and must not deny or unduly interfere with the rights of management inherent in the ownership of property.

"The United States believes that Inter-American Electrical Communications can best be extended and improved by encouraging private initiative and the investment of private capital in that field. Capital invested in electrical communication systems should be adequately protected, and the owners should not be deprived of their property without just compensation.

"The United States is not in accord with any policy which fixes arbitrary rates or prescribes the bases therefor, without due consideration of the effects of such rates on the service to be performed.

"On matters relating to technical requirements, traffic regulations, operating methods and procedure, and other matters pertaining to details of management, private enterprises should have the right to make suitable arrangements with governments, and others; provided that such arrangements are not inconsistent with the proper discharge of public obligations undertaken by such enterprises."

It is evident that the Government function begins and ends with the protection of the public interest, and that so long as this is safeguarded the Government is not concerned with matters pertaining to management. This principle has been generally accepted as a national policy in accord with the best interests of the American people and has been frequently affirmed as a correct statement of established law.

The Government of the United States was not a party to the St. Petersburg International Telegraph Convention of 1875 or the Lisbon Revision of 1908. Our Government sent delegates to the Paris Conference of 1925 for the revision of the International Telegraph Regulations, but did not adhere to the revision made there. When it became known at this conference that the United States had issued an invitation to the powers for a conference in Washington, to consider not only the revision of the London Radio Convention of 1912, but also the entire subject of international radio regulation, the Paris Conference decided to leave to the coming conference the discussion of all radio questions except that of point-to-point telegraphy. It expressed a wish that at the termination of the Washington Conference another assembly with full diplomatic powers be convened to combine the existing Telegraph Convention and the convention to be prepared by the Washington Radio Conference in one convention governing the communication systems of the world.

The London Radio Conference of 1912 drew up a convention and set of international regulations covering the use of radiotelegraphy between ships and between ship and shore. Our delegates signed this convention with the following reservation: "The Delegation of the United States declares that its Government is under the necessity of abstaining from all action with regard to tariffs, because the transmission of radio telegrams as well as that of telegrams in the United States is undertaken, wholly or in part, by commercial companies or individuals."

Those parts of the regulations which were not in conflict with the reservations of the United States have been enacted into Federal law. The great advances that have been made in radiotelegraphy since 1912 have rendered many of the provisions of the London Convention and Regulations obsolete. Since that date, many new radio services have come into existence, such as transoceanic and long-distance overland telegraphy, broadcasting, telephony, meteorological services, ice warning services, direction finding stations, time services, which are not covered by international agreement and regulations. It is evident that the contemplated Washington Conference will have many difficult controversial subjects to consider. In addition to revising the London Convention and Regulations of 1912, it will undoubtedly be called upon to legislate on point-to-point radio-telegraphy and radio broadcasting, including press messages; on radio-telephony, including broadcasting; on the allocation of frequencies for all classes of service; on the elimination of interference as far as practicable; on distress messages, in order to take cognizance of the latest technical developments; on radio aids to navigation; and other international uses of radio.

The Washington Conference cannot be considered completely successful unless the United States adheres to the convention which it is to prepare. In my opinion, it is essential to its success that recognition be given to the position of the United States on the subject of the regulation of electrical communications. This position is that the United States has the power to regulate privately-owned electrical systems only "so as to insure fair remuneration and prevent extortion, to secure substantial equality in like cases, and promote safety, good order and convenience. But, broad as is the power of regulation, the State does not enjoy the freedom of an owner."[ii] The United States cannot interfere in the managerial or operating functions of an electrical communication company so long as it conducts its affairs in accordance with the provisions which the United States has power to impose upon it under this rule of law.

Previous telegraph and radio conventions have failed to recognize the position of the United States. Our Government has not found it expedient to give its adherence to them, since it would deprive our operating companies of the freedom of action permitted by law and vouchsafed by the Constitution. If provision is made in a new convention to enable any administration or operating company authorized under the laws of any signatory to make suitable arrangements with any other administration or operating company, under the laws of its country, concerning questions of management, including traffic regulations and operating rules and methods to be used in international radio service and other matters not inconsistent with the provisions of the convention, I believe the objection to American adherence will disappear. The United States, as far as I know, has never requested other nations to adopt its doctrine on the ownership of communications. It has simply stated its position, at the London Conference in 1912, at the Washington Conference in 1920 and at the Inter-American Conference at Mexico City in 1924, and asked that it be considered.

If the right of American private communication companies to conduct their affairs under the laws of the United States is recognized, I am confident that it will be entirely feasible to formulate a convention and set of regulations which will take into account the advances recently made in radio-telegraphy and the many new services it has placed at our disposal, and which will prove acceptable to all the nations.

[i] Atlantic Coast Line v. N. Car. Com'n, 206 U. S. 1, p. 20; Wisconsin N. & P. R. R. v. Jacobson, 179 U. S. 287, p. 297; Lake Shore, etc., Rwy. Co. v. Smith, 173 U. S. 684, p. 697.

[ii] 236 U. S. P. 585.

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  • GENERAL JAMES G. HARBORD, President of the Radio Corporation of America; former Chief of Staff of the American Expeditionary Forces
  • More By James G. Harbord