Digital Pipeline: Who should pay?: 'Internet neutrality' debate grows
(Tulsa World (OK) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 9--Like most things in life, the Internet is becoming more complex as it ages.
Primarily used as a medium to transport text in its early years, the Internet has evolved into a multidimensional information, communications and entertainment source. The catalyst for its growth has been the World Wide Web, which was created in 1989 when there was one Web site.
Over the years, the number of Web sites grew to 18,000 in 1995, 50 million in 2004 and to more than 100 million today.
The proliferation of Web sites, in turn, has spawned photo sharing, gaming, transmission of books, movies and television programs, and greater demands on the networks of high-speed broadband providers such as AT&T and Cox Communications.
The broadband providers have had to invest billions of dollars in their networks to carry the increased traffic, and they expect to be compensated for it, company executives say.
But who should pay: content providers or Internet consumers?
This is but one aspect of an ongoing debate on Internet -- or Net -- neutrality.
"Net neutrality is the practice
of network operators moving data without regard to who provided it," says SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media & Democracy, which is a non-profit, non-partisan, public interest organization.
"Without network neutrality, network operators (including Internet service providers for consumers) could give preference to the Web sites and services of corporations that enter into financial agreements with them, and slow down data from sources that do not have such agreements."
Network neutrality has been the standard operating procedure of broadband providers since the Internet was founded.
But for the past two years, public interest groups, including Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and AARP have been lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to write the concept of network neutrality into law and regulation.
According to SavetheInternet.com Coalition, a Net neutrality advocacy organization, domination of the Internet by the nation's largest telephone and cable companies has caused the United States to go from being the global Internet leader to an also-ran behind dozens of other nations.
"Compared to citizens in other developed nations, Americans now pay 10 to 20 times as much for far slower Internet services," the coalition says on its Web site. "Due to duopoly control of markets (96 percent of residential broadband services are either cable or DSL), a full 37 percent of zip codes have one or fewer choices of a wired broadband provider."
The proponents of Net neutrality legislation cite a 2005 interview with former AT&T Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre as evidence that the open and free Internet exchange of ideas could be in jeopardy.
BusinessWeek magazine asked Whitacre about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage and others.
Whitacre said the Googles of the Internet require broadband pipes to access custom ers.
"Cable companies have them. We have them," Whitacre told BusinessWeek. "Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it.
"So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. . . . The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes free is nuts!"
Other executives of AT&T and competing broadband providers were quick to distance themselves from Whitacre's remarks. They said their profitability depended on customer satisfaction, which would be problematical if the company blocked content or slowed delivery of some Web sites.
However, if the present situation were to prevail, it's clear that the broadband providers will be carrying additional broadband traffic without being paid more for it.
But is a Net neutrality law or regulation the way to address the problem?
K. Lloyd Billingsley doesn't think so.
Editorial director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute and author of "Net Gains or Net Losses? The Net Neutrality Debate and the Future of the Internet," a 37-page study issued last month, Billingsley looks unfavorably upon government regulation of the Internet.
Imposing a regulatory regime of Net neutrality would harm consumers, quash innovation and investment, and prove difficult or impossible to change in the future, Billingsley says in his study.
"At its heart, the Net neutrality debate is about price controls, and Net-neutrality advocates want government regulation -- rather than the open market -- to determine what we pay for using the In ternet," Billingsley says.
"Kept free from a new and onerous regulatory regime, high-tech companies large and small will continue to attract investment and roll out services that will promote Internet intelligence, Internet diversity and Internet ubiquity, the true digital democracy of the next-generation Net."
AT&T and Cox Communications, the two largest broadband providers in Oklahoma, also favor a hands-off approach to the Internet by the federal government.
"The amount of data carried by the Internet is growing exponentially as Internet content has moved from text to graphics and now to video," AT&T spokesman Andy Morgan said in a telephone interview.
"Net neutrality legislation should not shift costs from corporations to consumers by barring networks from offering premium services to businesses that create large amounts of Internet traffic.
"It requires billions of dollars in new investments to provide the expanded capacity needed to handle all of the new applications that content providers and others are developing. We think it's everybody's responsibility to contribute according to the cost they impose on the underlying infrastructure."
Cox executives say additional regulation would impose additional costs on broadband providers.
"As the FCC agrees, broadband service providers must be free to manage their networks to ensure their customers have a positive experience," Cox spokeswoman Christine Martin said via e-mail.
"Cox doesn't and won't block our customers' access to legal Internet content. Cox doesn't require our customers to sign long-term service agreements, so it's in our best interest to keep them satisfied with . . . quality of service every month."
AARP and consumer advocacy organizations favor Net neutrality laws or regulations.
AARP spokesman Sean Voskuhl, in an e-mail message, said policymakers should ensure that:
All residential consumers have choices from among multiple broadband networks;
--All local governments have the right to own, operate or deploy their own broadband network or services;
--Consumers have the right to use their Internet connections to access, use, send, receive or offer any lawful content or services they choose over the Internet; and
--Consumers have the right to attach any device (Internet phones, gaming consoles and WiFi routers) to the operator's broadband network as long as the device does not damage or degrade other subscribers' use of the network.
Last year, Consumers Union, Free Press and the Consumer Federation of America conducted a national poll of Internet users.
The poll found that more than 75 percent of Internet users polled are seriously concerned about not being able to freely choose an Internet service provider or being required to pay twice for certain Internet services.
Another 70 percent of those polled were concerned about broadband providers blocking or impairing their access to Internet services or sites, such as Internet telephone service or online retailers like Amazon.com.
At a press conference where the poll was discussed, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, an advocate of media diversity, said the poll should be a starting point for further discussion of the Internet's future.
Copps said additional dialogue will give Americans a better understanding of how the policy choices made today will influence the coming broadband generation of Internet content, applications and services.
D.R. Stewart 581-8451
How "Net neutrality" proponents and opponents line up
Net neutrality proponents include:
--American Federation of State, County and Municipal
--Consumer Federation of America.
--Interfaith Council for Social Justice.
--Service Employees International Union.
--U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
--Net neutrality opponents include:
--Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
--Communications Workers of America/AFL-CIO.
--Cox Communications Inc.
--Hands Off The Internet.
--New England Cable and Telecommunications Association.
--Verizon Communications Inc.
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