Pipe Dreams

The telecom firms that carry the bulk of Internet traffic appear to be gearing up to sell faster service for higher prices, changing the all-traffic-is-equal status quo, says Sunday’s Washington Post.

“For the first time, the companies that own the equipment that delivers the Internet to your office, cubicle, den and dorm room could, for a price, give one company priority on their networks over another,” wrote Post media analyst Christopher Stern in a piece entitled “The Coming Tug of War over the Internet.”

Stern says the Consumer Federation of America and Consumer’s Union have been trying to get the Federal Communications Commission to write the concept of “network neutrality” into law. The opposing notion, that Internet backbone providers should be free to charge what the traffic will bear, was articulated in a November Business Week interview in which SBC Chairman Edward Whitacre cited the investment telephone and cable providers have made in broadband pipes. For content-delivery firms “to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!”, Whitacre said.

Differential pricing is just one thread of a debate woven around this conundrum: the ethos and technology of the Internet are based on democratic access and interoperability. But the Web is now commercially driven and populated by huge corporations, be they pipe-makers or pipe-fillers.

A lengthy article in Linux Journal entitled “Saving the Net” bemoans the current direction of things, differential pricing being just one manifestation of the privatization of the Web. The Progress & Freedom Foundation takes the market-oriented view that privatization is good and that bundled services, such as speedier access for the delivery of certain content will encourage the build-out of the Internet pipes.

The debate will revolve around the revisions and updates underway to the 1996 Telecom Act. Critical decisions will likely be trade offs between Big Content and Big Telecom, with input from consumer groups. Independent Web producers — the mini media community as I call it — will have to hope it all works out because seating is limited in those smoke-filled rooms.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media