April 17, 2006

Salon on Net Neutrality [8:31 am]

The corporate toll on the Internet

Now — after a series of acquisitions and re-acquisitions so tangled it would take Herodotus to adequately chronicle them — AT&T is back, it’s big, and according to consumer advocates and some of the nation’s largest technology companies, AT&T wants to take over the Internet.

The critics — including Apple, Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo — point out that AT&T, along with Verizon and Comcast, its main rivals in the telecom business, will dominate the U.S. market for residential high-speed Internet service for the foreseeable future. Currently, that market is worth $20 billion, and according to the Federal Communications Commission, the major “incumbent” phone and cable companies — such as AT&T — control 98 percent of the business. Telecom industry critics say that these giants gained their power through years of deregulation and lax government oversight. Now many fear that the phone and cable firms, with their enormous market power, will hold enormous sway over what Americans do online.

Specifically, AT&T has hinted that it plans to charge Web companies a kind of toll to send data at the highest speeds down DSL lines into its subscribers’ homes. The plan would make AT&T a gatekeeper of media in your home. Under the proposal, the tens of millions of people who get their Internet service from AT&T might only be able to access heavy-bandwidth applications — such as audio, video and Internet phone service — from the companies that have paid AT&T a fee. Meanwhile, firms that don’t pay — perhaps Google, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube, Salon, or anyone else — would be forced to use a smaller and slower section of the AT&T network, what Internet pioneer Vint Cerf calls a “dirt road” on the Internet. AT&T’s idea, its critics say, would shrink the vast playground of the Internet into something resembling the corporate strip mall of cable TV.

[...] Each side predicts dire consequences if its opponents win. Jim Ciccone, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external affairs, says that if broadband service is regulated, AT&T won’t be able to recoup its costs for building these new lines — “and then we don’t build the network.” The Web firms say that if the big broadband companies are allowed to charge content firms for access to your house, we’ll see the Internet go the way of other deregulated media — just like TV and radio, where a small band of big companies used their wealth to swallow up consumer choice. If broadband companies get their way, says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, the Internet will one day feature nothing much more exciting than “the digital equivalent of endless episodes of ‘I Love Lucy.’”

Interesting related article cited in the comments on this one: Down to the Wire from Foreign Affairs

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