Information Wants to be Free

Digital Domain

Hey, Baby Bells: Information Still Wants to Be Free


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 ideas.

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 already levy.)

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 negative."

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 networks open.

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. E-mail:

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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