Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Battle for Broadband...

While most some a few of us were riveted by the pseudo-debate in Congress over the war in Iraq, another legislative battle is underway that has significant implications for rural America.

The "Net Neutrality" controversy has enough conflicting elements policy to confuse the casual observer and concern the knowledgeable. I fall somewhere in between, I think, and have struggled to decide where I stand on this complex issue.

The success of the Internet has rested, I believe, on its power to give an equal voice to unequal players. Talented and original content providers could compete with enormous organizations and more amazingly, win because the quality of the experience was based on the information they produced, not the way it was delivered. Maintaining this policy of treating websites equally seems like a fundamental key to preserving the power of the Internet, especially for individuals or poorer participants.

However, the right of communications companies ("telcos") to offer wealthy content providers (Google, Yahoo, AOL, etc.) faster delivery of content (the prime example: video) seems like a reasonable extension of free enterprise as well.

These two ideals conflict because once multiple tiers of speed for different content are allowed, the slow becomes the lame. It also sets a precedent for "valuing content" to determine how fast it gets sent. The analogy would be toll roads charging trucks carrying grain a different price than trucks carrying steel.

But mostly it allows yet another elite level of service available to those who have the wealth. I understand that allowing this form of economic discrimination will create jobs and increase economic activity, but our exclusive use of this yardstick as the measure of what is good has produced variable results.

For rural America, I suspect we would not see many benefits from "premier class" service, and our regular Internet speeds would likely languish as communications companies rush for the big bucks. The trickle down would be as slow as trying to get basic broadband coverage.

I do not begrudge the wealthy their perks (OK, I do, but I try to bite my tongue). I simply have come to the conclusion that the Internet offers too great a chance to bring us together to allow it to degenerate into simply another high-end electronic toy.

This battle may be described poorly but briefly as a struggle between the "Googles" and the "Bells". Each side has representation in Congress and the issue fractures normal political lines. And the stakes may run into the billions.

Above all it is an exceedingly complex issue to wrestle to the ground. - so not many are trying. For what it is worth, my meager study of the issue leads me to suspect this may be the moment when we can preserve a democratic tool that is re-shaping society everywhere for the better.

We have growing profits in abundance, we do not have growing ties to each other. I support net neutrality regulations.

Of course, I could be wrong.

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