An Open (and Neutral) Internet

This is in jeopardy. One of the unfortunate side effects of the broadband revolution has been a consolidation in access providers. In the bad old days, when you used a modem to access the Internet, you had a choice of hundreds of Internet providers. The performance sucked, but the choice was grand. With the move to broadband, you are very lucky if you even have a choice of two or three access provider.

In the old ISP days, the access providers just sold access. These days, the broadband access providers sell more than access. They sell services such as telephone and video. In fact, those have been their primary products, and only now are they backing into Internet access. They have every incentive to push access customers to their services, and no incentive to play fair with other service providers. In this scenario, competitive service providers have a substantial disadvantage.

The other problem is that access providers can use their dominant position to shakedown other service providers—even providers that don't compete with them. For example, SBC could go to Google and demand a premium to access SBC customers. They can make that threat because they know they could block or degrade a popular service like Google, and there isn't too much their customers can do. It's not like the old days when if a modem access provider pissed you off, you had a choice of 999 other providers to use.

Think this is a far-fetched "sky is falling" scenario? Nope, in fact it's already happening. We've already had incidents where a phone company has blocked access to lower-cost VOIP providers. Now, the CEO of SBC is threatening to charge service providers such as Google for access to their subscribers.

The U.S. Congress has started to consider telecommunications reform legislation, and that presents an opportunity to address this problem. Congress should demand "network neutrality." That's a principle that says access providers cannot discriminate between content providers. Internet subscribers should have the right to access any service on the Internet, not just the ones that provide revenue to the big communication companies. If we don't, I fear that the access providers will try to leverage their control over subscribers to rebuild walled-garden services (like Prodigy and pre-Internet AOL) of the bad old days.

See this recent column by Jonathan Krim for more information on how the big communication providers are trying to leverage their positions to the detriment of the Internet.