“The networks of today have to be upgraded,” said Carl Russo, the chief executive of Calix, a company that sells Internet television equipment. “You can push this bag around all you want, but at the end of the day, we will pay for it.”
The most obvious tactic would be to raise consumers’ subscription rates. But Mr. Russo and others say that is unpalatable to the Bells, which portray themselves as the low-cost broadband providers, and even harder for cable companies, which already charge subscribers premium prices for their faster connections.
The government is unlikely to fork over any money to help the cable and phone companies expand their networks. Lawmakers would be pilloried if they used taxpayer dollars to subsidize the highly profitable telecommunications companies directly. So phone and cable companies are turning to a new source: Web content providers. For the most part, the Internet sites now get a free ride because network operators have to transport equally all data that travels on their networks. Some content providers do buy extra servers so that consumers can zip around their sites more quickly, but they absorb that cost themselves.
The idea of the service providers is to create a system where Web sites can, for a fee, bump their data into a kind of fast lane, where it will not be mixed in with everyone else’s. A mom-and-pop online retailer might consider this unnecessary, but a company selling, say, videos online could see it as crucial.
[...] “Economics 101 says that if iTunes raises its rates, some consumers will switch to other music download sites, download fewer songs or even make more illegal downloads,” said Bruce Leichtman, who runs the Leichtman Group, a market research group which follows the cable and phone industries. “The higher price would lower demand in some shape or form.”
Another possibility, critics say, is that smaller Web sites would be crowded out. A big company like Apple, they argue, has the money to pay network providers for faster access and absorb the cost. But mom-and-pop online Web sites might not. If they were unable to compete with bigger, faster sites, the result could be less diversity of content on the Internet.
“Tollbooths and gatekeepers are the exact opposite of what the Internet is all about,” said Michael J. Copps, a Democratic commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. “Down that route consumers can count on paying more and getting less — less content, fewer services and reduced innovation.”
The big network operators argue that they would never deliberately slow or block access to Web sites, because doing so would raise a furor in Washington. Besides, they say, angry consumers could switch Internet providers in protest.
That may be true in big cities like New York and Washington, where there is a variety of Internet service providers. But in many other cities, there are typically two and sometimes only one broadband provider — the cable or phone company.