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Here's hoping Congress keeps the pipes open

Vonage In Print News

February 3, 2006

By Andrew Kantor

As Congress gets rolling in its next session, there's an interesting debate it's going to have about the future of high-speed Internet. It's one that will affect you and your wallet directly, and one that has some interesting perspectives that cry out for discussion.

The issue is network neutrality. If the right law is passed it might prevent telephone, cable, and other high-speed-connection providers from becoming complete twerps.

The idea of network neutrality is simple: Whoever carries data to your house shouldn't care what's in that signal. If it's e-mail from Aunt Shirley or a phone call from the White House, it's all handled as efficiently as possible. The network is neutral. But some companies don't see it that way.

Imagine you make a phone call to a friend, but instead of hearing it ring, you get a recording: "We're sorry, but the person you are calling has not paid Verizon to carry his or her conversations. We apologize for any inconvenience."
Couldn't happen, of course. Your phone company will connect you to whomever you call, period. You pay the bills, after all, so it remains neutral. A carrier can't discriminate based on who you're calling.

Now imagine this: You have a DSL connection from your local phone company. You try to go to, say, but instead see a message, " does not currently have a transport agreement with AT&T to have its content carried to AT&T subscribers. We apologize for any inconvenience."

In other words, imagine that Internet providers started refusing to carry content from websites that didn't pay for their service.

The scary thing is, it's something they're not only discussing, but some are pushing for it.

Their point of view is not only illogical, it's misleading. It stems from the fact that more of the companies that bring you the data pipe are also in the business of providing content.

Cable TV is the perfect example. Your cable company makes carloads of money from subscribers, but it makes truckloads from the content companies; the History Channel, Showtime, and all the others shell out the big bucks to get into your living room.

On the other hand, neither USA Today, Google, Amazon, nor any website pays to have its content carried to your PC.
But the concept of television is changing. As I wrote in a previous column, your television is on its way to becoming an Internet device, where you get your TV shows not on a set number of "channels," but from an untold number of content carriers online. Some will be familiar — CBS, Animal Planet, Noggin — but you'll also have access to tons of amateur content; this is stuff that you don't see today because it wasn't picked up by a network. Tomorrow, though, if you and your friends want to put on a weekly show, the world will be able to watch it on their televisions.

That's a sea change for what we think of today as "cable TV" companies, many of which have significant stakes in content producers. If they suddenly become simple data carriers, they lose all that money they get from ESPN, HBO, and the like, who will simply make their shows available on the Internet for viewers to access directly.

To say this scares the bejesus out of cable companies is an understatement. The Internet-based future is a frightening one for them. And "telephone" companies see that same future as an opportunity to reap in more money by adopting a cable-like model.

The plan being bandied about is to start charging websites to carry their content, or at least carry it fast enough for video. So you won't be able to view video on the Discovery Channel's site unless it has an agreement with your provider.

Quoth AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre, in response to a Business Week question about Google, MSN, and Vonage: "What they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?"

I call shenanigans.

As Mr. Whitacre well knows, these company's already pay for access. They rent some pretty major pipes, in fact. His logic, if you can call it that, is akin to AT&T refusing to connect me to someone in Columbus, Ohio, because I'm a Verizon customer.

Imagine having to buy phone service not just from your local carrier, but from every other carrier whose customers you might call? That's what Whitacre is proposing for Internet access.

Hence, it's time for Congress to get involved.
One of the issues it will hopefully get around to debating is that of Net neutrality. In short, a law that would among other things, prohibits "broadband network operators from unreasonably favoring themselves or their affiliates in the provision of Internet service".

I'm a fan of a light government touch — the market is better at sorting things out than a few hundred congresscritters will ever be. But let's not forget that companies like today's AT&T and Verizon got their start as a government-approved monopoly, and much of the capital that Whitacre referred to spending came as a result — direct or indirect — of that monopoly status.

It's a bit disingenuous to use the government's power to help yourself, then lobby against government interference.
Sure, less interference in commerce is the goal, but not just by the folks on Capitol Hill. Keep the pipes open.

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