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
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
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
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.