Bad metaphors make bad policy. Everyone talks about the "information highway." But in economic terms the telecommunications network resembles not a highway but the railroad industry of the robber-baron era — that is, before it faced effective competition from trucking. And railroads eventually faced tough regulation, for good reason: they had a lot of market power, and often abused it.
Yet the people making choices today about the future of the Internet — above all Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — seem unaware of this history. They are full of enthusiasm for the wonders of deregulation, dismissive of concerns about market power. And meanwhile tomorrow's robber barons are fortifying their castles.
Until recently, the Internet seemed the very embodiment of the free-market ideal — a place where thousands of service providers competed, where anyone could visit any site. And the tech sector was a fertile breeding ground for libertarian ideology, with many techies asserting that they needed neither help nor regulation from Washington.
But the wide-open, competitive world of the dial-up Internet depended on the very government regulation so many Internet enthusiasts decried. Local phone service is a natural monopoly, and in an unregulated world local phone monopolies would probably insist that you use their dial-up service. The reason you have a choice is that they are required to act as common carriers, allowing independent service providers to use their lines.
A few years ago everyone expected the same story to unfold in broadband. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to create a highly competitive broadband industry. But it was a botched job; the promised competition never materialized.
For example, I personally have no choice at all: if I want broadband, the Internet service provided by my local cable company is it. I'm like a 19th-century farmer who had to ship his grain on the Union Pacific, or not at all. If I lived closer to a telephone exchange, or had a clear view of the Southern sky, I might have some alternatives. But there are only a few places in the U.S. where there is effective broadband competition.
And that's probably the way it will stay. The political will to fix the 1996 act, to create in broadband the kind of freewheeling environment that many Internet users still take for granted, has evaporated.
Last March the F.C.C. used linguistic trickery — defining cable Internet access as an "information service" rather than as telecommunications — to exempt cable companies from the requirement to act as common carriers. The commission will probably make a similar ruling on DSL service, which runs over lines owned by your local phone company. The result will be a system in which most families and businesses will have no more choice about how to reach cyberspace than a typical 19th-century farmer had about which railroad would carry his grain.
There were and are alternatives. We could have restored competition by breaking up the broadband industry, restricting local phone and cable companies to the business of selling space on their lines to independent Internet service providers. Or we could have accepted limited competition, and regulated Internet providers the way we used to regulate AT&T. But right now we seem to be heading for a system without either effective competition or regulation.
Worse yet, the F.C.C. has been steadily lifting restrictions on cross-ownership of media and communications companies. The day when a single conglomerate could own your local newspaper, several of your local TV channels, your cable company and your phone company — and offer your only route to the Internet — may not be far off.
The result of all this will probably be exorbitant access charges, but that's the least of it. Broadband providers that face neither effective competition nor regulation may well make it difficult for their customers to get access to sites outside their proprietary domain — ending the Internet as we know it. And there's a political dimension too. What happens when a few media conglomerates control not only what you can watch, but what you can download?
There's still time to rethink; a fair number of Congressmen, from both parties, have misgivings about Mr. Powell's current direction. But time is running out.
Originally published in The New York Times, 12.6.02