RealTime IT News

CNN, Chicken Fried Steaks And The Same Dumb Pipe

WASHINGTON -- Dialup Internet service: ah, the good ol' days.

Way back in the 1990s, dialup was the only pipe to the Internet. It was a nice dumb pipe with end users sitting on the edge of the network with unfettered access to go and do whatever they wanted on the Internet.

The Bells' copper lines served only as a conduit between Internet content, application and service providers and other Internet users. All content rolling down the last mile of the pipe was treated the same.

Web sites flourished, growing at almost exponential rates. Each were free to push or receive content to another site with no discrimination in the delivery of the traffic. Chickenfriedsteaks.com was treated the same as CNN.com.

The reinvented Bells and the cable companies now want to reverse that with their business models for broadband delivery. Under their scheme, content type would be linked with transport for the first time in the still brief history of the Internet.

The link? Fees.

Or as AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said, "For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!"

What the telephone and cable companies want to do is charge a fee to run content and other services at the same speed and quality of the network owners' own content. Everyone and everything else goes into the slow lane of the "public" Internet.

This, AT&T insists, is not discriminatory.

Besides, they argue, it's a free marketplace out there. If users don't like the policies of one broadband provider, they can simply change providers.

Unfortunately, it's not much of a free market. Today, phone and cable companies control 98 percent of all broadband connections.

While it's true that satellite, wireless and broadband over power lines may one day provide competition to the current duopoly, that day is still somewhere off in the distance.

Currently, and for the foreseeable future, lucky Americans have a choice of only two broadband providers: telephone companies or cable companies. Some have a choice of only one and some areas of the country have none.

"If providers with bottleneck control can favor their own services and content and erect controls for unaffiliated service providers, we can end up with a truly balkanized Internet," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently said.

According to Copps, the whole idea "inverts the democratic genius of the Internet: It makes the pipe intelligent but the end user dumb.

"It seems they want to double dip -- get paid by consumers so consumers can access Web sites and get paid by Web sites so Web sites can access consumers."

Copps, it should be noted, is a regulatory-minded Democrat.

"If we have a competitive marketplace, by all means the government can step out of the picture and let a thousand flowers bloom. If the marketplace is truly competitive, we can rely on its genius," he said.

However the broadband market is not truly competitive. Duopolies never are.

"In the meantime, the concentrated providers out there have the ability -- and maybe even the incentive -- to build networks with traffic management policies that could restrict how we use the Internet," Copps added.

Last year, the FCC had the opportunity to make network neutrality part of its regulations for operating a broadband network. It didn't, opting instead for a set of principles.

Principles are not regulations any more than regulations are laws, which is why network neutrality has become such a hot topic in Congress.

"I can't begrudge providers for hunting for new revenue and new opportunities. That drive helps keep our system going," Copps said. "But this particular proposal misses the mark, because Web site content is what makes the carrier's broadband service valuable in the first place."

Smart pipes add to that value, though, collecting fees on both ends.

"History shows when firms have the technology and the incentive to do something to enhance their sway, chances are they'll give it a try," Copps said. "It doesn't make them bad people, but it can lead to horribly bad results."

Only until Congress puts the FCC broadband principles into law will those who hold the bottleneck control be truly forced to be nondiscriminatory in delivering Internet traffic.