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Telecoms Push For Net Takeover

Bill D. Herman May 18, 2006

The Internet as we know it is endangered.If Verizon, Comcast and other broadband companies get their way in Congress, the Internet may soon become a cable-TV type service in which only selected sites are available at top speeds and corporate content is favored at the expense of everyone else.

Today’s broadband user can download and upload content as fast as the network can transmit it. The major exception is pricing for performance. Many broadband service providers (BSPs) sell digital subscriber line or cable modem service at different speeds for different prices.

Whatever the service, users can access free services and software at the same speed as forprofit products. The explosion in useful online tools like blogs, Wikipedia, Indymedia, and BitTorrent is a direct result of people creating, sharing and adopting whatever
technologies they find the most useful.

Instead of this meritocracy, broadband companies want to create an Internet of tiered access for content providers. H.R. 5252, authored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), embodies this wish. Barton’s bill insists “consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice,” but it doesn’t prohibit BSPs from favoring some content (for a fee) and slowing others.

Barton’s bill even strips the Federal Communications Commission of authority to impose such regulations. It also leaves untouched a federal statute (47 U.S.C. § 230) that permits Internet service providers to censor any “objectionable” content. If Barton’s current bill passes, corporations like Disney, ESPN and Amazon will hog the fast lane on the information superhighway, paying extra to blast content down (emphasis on down) your broadband pipe at top speed.

For instance, Verizon is deploying fiberoptic service with downstream speeds of up to 30 megabytes per second, over 500 times as fast as dial-up. Barton’s bill would allow Verizon to charge for high-speed transmission.

Content providers who don’t cough up the toll money would be relegated to perhaps onetenth the speed. Those who pay will have something to sell or advertise; everyone else will be in the slow lane.

Telecommunications executives agree: this is their future business model. AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre demanded that companies like Google, Yahoo and Vonage start paying to reach his customers. “Cable companies have [broandband pipes]. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them… The Internet can’t be free in that sense.”

Already e-businesses pay mammoth bandwidth fees to their own network providers, and end users pay to download this content. Whitacre and his company are inventing a third revenue stream: they want us to pay them not to interfere. Broadband companies can set up online tollbooths because the market is non-competitive.

In the largest cities, cable and phone companies enjoy a near-total broadband duopoly, and the competition gets worse from there. Almost half the population has access to just one or no broadband providers. Imagine how fees would affect the next big online tool, one that requires next-generation broadband speeds. Inventors would have to pay broadband providers and hope for near-overnight adoption by paying users. Few startups and no nonprofits could afford this. Many valuable inventions
would be sent abroad or buried.

Many more would never be developed. Firefox, Wikipedia, and Indymedia are just three examples of collaborative online tools developed because they are good for society, not good for paying the mortgage. Nonprofits, researchers, educators, and all levels of government are improving our lives with free online content and services. None of these groups can afford Whitacre’s extortion.

Finally, consider the potential for Internet censorship. Last July, Canadian telecomm giant Telus blocked its 1 million customers from accessing a website supporting the striking Telecommunications Workers Union. Barton’s weak, vague bill may embolden online censorship. Without a clear neutrality mandate, BSPs could cut off any content as “objectionable” or slow it to a crawl.

Call your Senators and Representative today. Tell them to support the network neutrality
bills in the House and Senate. Find their numbers at Senate.gov and House.gov. Find more details on these bills at Thomas.loc.gov. For now, at least, these websites will
download as fast as your connection allows.

Bill D. Herman is a Ph.D. candidate studying media policy, copyright law and communication technology at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. He blogs at ShoutingLoudly.com.