Fences Around the Internet

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

April 4, 2005

Would anyone be willing to return to the days when residential telephone service meant a clunky, black dial phone (leased from AT&T) that plugged into a line (owned by AT&T) that connected to a spider web of lines (you guessed it, owned by AT&T)? Not if it meant forsaking the wealth of choices that blossomed after consumers won the right to buy their own phones and select their long-distance carrier.

Substitute Internet service for telephone service and you've got the back-to-the-future scenario that cable television and local phone companies are lobbying hard for in Washington. The companies understandably want to rein in competition so they can solidify their grasp on high-speed Internet access. The risk for the rest of us if this increasingly powerful cable/phone duopoly gets its way is that we'll be stuck with the Internet equivalent of clunky black telephones. Use their very basic e-mail service, for instance, or take a hike.

The old open-access fight was about Internet service providers. Before it bought Time Warner, for instance, America Online had to fight for access to cable lines or be a bit player in the declining dial-up world. Now, there is no telling what future applications we're going to want from someone other than our phone or cable company, our de facto new gatekeepers of the Web.

Cable operators should be fairly compensated for their investments in the wires to your home when Internet telephone providers and other companies seek access to serve customers over the same lines. But the Federal Communications Commission seems too worried about the bottom lines of cable and phone companies and too little concerned about the consumers and businesses that pay monthly cable and phone bills. The agency has joined the cable industry in opposing a challenge now before the Supreme Court that would require cable operators to open their high-speed lines. The agency also plans to eliminate regulations requiring telephone companies to open their lines to Internet service providers, or ISPs.

Though not parties to the case before the Supreme Court, Walt Disney Co., EBay, Amazon.com, Microsoft and Apple are lobbying the FCC for regulations that guarantee open Internet access. It's worth worrying about when the companies creating the content we're going online to enjoy are fearful that cable and phone companies will fence off digitized information.

The best outcome for consumers in the Brand X case is a clear-cut decision that supports unfettered Internet access. Cable and phone companies shouldn't dictate every last aspect of our online experience.