The NYT on Net Neutrality

14 Jan ’06

Randall Stross covers neutrality today in the NYT in a piece titled “Hey, Baby Bells: Information Still Wants to Be Free”. Stross makes the interesting observation that it is the laggardly pace of broadband development in the U.S. that opens up opportunities for the access providers to premium charge for high-bandwidth content. (It’s a great piece with wide coverage – read the entire article.) Gist:

Now these same carriers – led by Verizon Communications and BellSouth – want to create entirely new categories of fees that risk destroying the anyone-can-publish culture of the Internet. And they are lobbying for legislative protection of their meddling with the Internet content that runs through their pipes. These are not good ideas.

Slow broadband seems to be our cursed lot. Until we get an upgrade – or rather an upgrade to an upgrade – the only Americans who will enjoy truly fast and inexpensive service will be those who leave the country. In California, Comcast cable broadband provides top download speeds of 6 megabits a second for a little more than $50 a month. That falls well short, however, of Verizon’s 15-megabit fiber-based service offered on the East Coast at about the same price. But what about the 100-megabit service in Japan for $25 month? And better, much better: Stockholm’s one-gigabit service – that is, 1,000 megabits, or more than 1,300 times faster than Verizon’s entry-level DSL service – for less than 100 euros, or $120, a month.

One-gigabit service is not in the offing in the United States. What the network carriers seem most determined to sell is a premium form of Internet service that offers a tantalizing prospect of faster, more reliable delivery – but only if providers like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft pay a new charge for special delivery of their content. (That charge, by the way, would be in addition to the regular bandwidth-based Internet connection charges that their carriers already levy.)

Considering Lessig’s recent observation that it is the unregulated domination of the access market by too few providers that has caused the U.S. to lag in broadband development, this suggests that providers are using their own strategic underinvestment to fuel claims that they ought to be paid more for the use of the pipe.

Nice business if you can get it, and an odd circularity indeed.

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