In recent months, all three remaining baby bells—Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T-SBC—have made noise about charging additional fees to network-traffic-generating businesses such as Google and Apple, claiming that their profitable bandwidth-intensive applications are free riders on the telecommunications carriers networks.
While the phone companies say they dont propose to block specific applications altogether, as service provider Madison River Communications attempted to do in blocking Vonage VOIP (voice over IP) traffic through its network last year, they are pushing to scrap the application- and provider-neutral Internet we know in favor of a multitiered version in which providers would be required to pay premium prices for the privilege of furnishing popular services.
A move toward a toll-road model would be bad for the Internet and bad for the quickly expanding ranks of individuals and businesses that depend on it. The broadband Internet, like the Interstate Highway System, is infrastructure thats vital to our nations interests.
Theres ample historical precedent for the proposition that network infrastructure should be priced like a common carrier rather than a content discriminator.
One of the strengths of the Internet is that the intelligence it contains is situated on the periphery: The network is charged merely with delivering bits, without unseen hands choosing which packets to prioritize or regulate.
We need the content neutrality that has long been the Internets hallmark, whether broadband providers embrace it on their own or whether legislative action is required to ensure it.
Google announced last week that it didnt plan to pay additional fees or even discuss the question with the phone companies; we hope other content providers take a similar tack, as well as make Congress aware of their stance.
It is the offerings of businesses such as Apple and Google and untold others that drive consumers to subscribe to broadband services in the first place. Whats more, U.S. subscribers are paying quite a lot already for broadband and getting less for their money than consumers in many other parts of the world.
The Internet content and service providers that phone companies brand as free riders already do purchase their bandwidth: Theres no reason to accept additional charges, effectively tariffs on successful innovation, shoved in wherever Bells think there is the ability to pay.
In their wrangling before regulators, telecom carriers insisted they needed to be free of competition on their lines to upgrade their services.
Perhaps todays Federal Communications Commission is more concerned with imposing decency than with encouraging competition: Having given phone companies what they demanded, the FCC should follow up by keeping the Internet free of anti-competitive levies.
The Internet has thrived on content neutrality; continued neutrality is vital.
Whether or not todays large content and services providers can afford to pay new fees, the next generation of Internet applications—commercial or otherwise—will be stillborn in an environment of parasitic pricing.
Google is right to lead the charge in opposing that kind of pricing now, before it is too late.
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