Hey, Baby Bells: Information Still Wants to Be Free
By RANDALL STROSS
At the top of my wish list for next year's Consumer Electronics Show
is this: the introduction of broadband service across the country that
is as up to date as that 103-inch flat-screen monitor just introduced
by Panasonic. The digital lifestyle I see portrayed so alluringly in
ads is not possible when the Internet plumbing in our homes is as
pitiful as it is. The broadband carriers that we have today provide
service that attains negative perfection: low speeds at high prices.
It gets worse. 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
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
An executive vice president of Verizon, for example, said last week
that the proliferation of video programs offered via the Internet
opens a new opportunity for his company: a new class of premium online
delivery for Web sites wishing to pay extra to give smooth video
streams to their customers in the Verizon service area. The executive,
Thomas J. Tauke, said that a fast lane for premium content providers
would not reduce the quality of regular service for everyone else, and
that sites could choose not to sign up without suffering
retribution. "To the best of my knowledge," he said, "there's no
From the consumer's perspective, given the dismal state of the status
quo, shouldn't any service improvement be welcomed? The short answer
is: not necessarily.
For one thing, the occasional need for a preferential fast lane for
streaming video -- that is, moving pictures displayed as fast as they
arrive, rather than downloaded first and played from memory -- exists
in the United States only because our standard broadband speeds are so
slow. Were we ever to become a nation with networks supporting gigabit
service, streaming video would not require special handling.
Perhaps more important, the superabundance of content in the
Internet's ecosystem is best explained by its organizing principle of
"network neutrality." The phrase refers to the way the Internet
welcomes everyone who wishes to post content. Consumers, in turn,
enjoy limitless choices. Rather than having network operators select
content providers on our behalf -- the philosophy of the local cable
company -- the Internet allows all of us to act as our own network
programmers, serving a demographic of just one person.
Today, the network carrier has a minor, entirely neutral role in this
system -- providing the pipe for the bits that move the last miles to
the home. It has no say about where those bits happened to have
originated. Any proposed change in its role should be examined
carefully, especially if the change entails expanding the carrier's
power to pick and choose where bits come from -- a power that has the
potential to abrogate network neutrality.
This should be taken into account when Baby Bells say they need to
extract more revenue from their networks in order to finance service
improvements. Consumers will pay one way or the other, whether
directly, as Internet access fees, or indirectly, as charges when a
content company opts for special delivery and passes along its
increased costs to its customers. It would be better for the network
carriers to continue to do as they have, by charging higher rates for
higher bandwidth. (Sign me up for that one-gigabit service.)
Left unmentioned in Verizon's pitch is the concentration of power that
it enjoys in its service area, which would allow it to ignore the
equal-access principle whenever it wishes. We are asked to take on
faith that it and the other telephone companies with similar plans
will handle ordinary network traffic with the same care they would
show if they had not begun parallel businesses for the carriage
trade. How likely is that?
Vinton G. Cerf has as good a claim as anyone to being the "father" of
the Internet -- he was the co-author in the 1970's of key protocols
that define it. He worked for many years at MCI and joined Google last
year. After hearing a description of Verizon's contemplated offering
of a premium delivery service for video, he was skeptical that Verizon
and other broadband carriers, would adhere to promises to keep their
Mr. Cerf said that back in the 1990's, when the Web arrived, consumers
could choose from among hundreds of dial-up service providers, without
geographical constraints. But "as broadband developed," he added, "the
set of choices telescoped to zero, one or two," and the lack of choice
means that "we now have a serious issue on our hands."
Woe to us all if the Internet's content is limited by the companies
who also handle the plumbing. "The Future of Ideas," by Lawrence
Lessig (Random House, 2001), shows how innovation and creativity
associated with the Internet are the byproducts of its openness, its
role as a commons that is accessible, by design, to all. Professor
Lessig, who teaches law at Stanford, said last week that even now,
broadband carriers have failed to demonstrate their commitment to the
principle of network neutrality. "They've fought it at each stage,"
he said, "and they have never embraced the principle."
An illustration of his point popped up the same day. In an interview,
William L. Smith, the chief technology officer at BellSouth, described
to me his company's trial offering in West Palm Beach, Fla., last year
of a speedy download service for Movielink content. When asked whether
BellSouth would offer its special service on an exclusive basis to a
particular content site and agree to exclude the sponsor's rivals, he
did not hesitate in treating the question as a matter of simply
settling on the right price. The N.F.L. and Nascar strike exclusive
distribution deals, he said. Why not network carriers?
The largest Internet companies are the ones that could easily afford
whatever terms the carriers demand for exclusive deals that would lock
out smaller rivals and new entrants. But they have not done special
deals with the carriers and instead have joined together to try to
persuade Congress to protect the principle of network neutrality and
prevent the Bells from striking exclusive deals with anyone. Last
November, Amazon, eBay, Microsoft and Google, among others, formally
registered their concern with a House committee that is revising the
basic telecommunications law; they noted that a draft version of the
bill failed to make network neutrality a matter of policy without
exception. Whether the committee has responded positively to the
suggestions from the Internet players should be known soon.
In his debut keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show two
weeks ago, one of Google's founders, Larry Page, credited the
"dreamers in universities" who had had the foresight to create a
network system without gatekeepers, which made it "maximally flexible"
to permit the unplanned appearance of the World Wide Web. That, in
turn, had made possible the unplanned appearance of Google.
More unplanned appearances will follow -- but only if the ecosystem is
protected from tromping telephone companies that are genetically
incapable of understanding "maximally flexible."
Randall Stross is a historian and author based in Silicon Valley.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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