Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ready for a privatized Internet?

If the net neutrality debate exists only on the fringes of your consciousness, it's time to sit up and take notice.

The U.S. Congress has and where is the outrage - the screaming - or is that the sound of the internet simply fading away. Several nations, including the United Kingdom and Japan, have made net neutrality the law of the land. As the U.S. Congress gears up to rewrite the nation’s telecommunication laws, many are pushing for a similar provision. Bad times may be on the door steps!

Here's the deal - US Lawmakers are currently weighing whether to allow the major telcos and cable giants to have their way in creating a two-tiered broadband Internet - to quote Dubya, one for the haves-mores, the other for the have-nots. Of course, broadband providers have promised that they will never block or degrade the speed of a Web site. Prioritizing content will simply mean certain sites will travel faster than standard service speeds .... ya, right!

Here's how it would work.

Say Yahoo! pays a fee to Verizon for preferred treatment on that network, but Google does not. Verizon broadband subscribers, who already pay for bandwidth, would then get Yahoo! pages (and ads) delivered much more quickly than Google's. Verizon could potentially even cut off access to Google altogether.

Farfetched?

AT&T CEO and chairman Ed Whitacre told Business Week Online, 'Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!'

Bastard! But he may have a point ... or at least a point that can bribe the US Congress.

Net neutrality advocates include virtually all the Web heavyweights: Amazon.com, Yahoo!, eBay, and Google. Even Bill Gates just came out in favor. Without this support, it could have a chilling effect on that entry-level Web publisher who may not have the financial wherewithal to pay those fees. The next generation garage start-up, like Google, wouldn't have a chance.

Opponents, unsurprisingly, are primarily in the telco industry: the Bells, Qwest, and major cable providers such as Comcast.

If the anti-neutrality behemoths get their way, they'll change the rules of the game for online content, marketing, advertising, and media buying.

Hmmm ... look at all the flack Yahoo! and AOL are getting for their planned certified e-mail offerings. It's been dubbed an 'e-mail tax' by consumer groups, non-profits, Internet activists and consumer groups, who are making it clear the issue here isn't stopping spam. Rather, it's about a level playing field for everyone.

In a tiered system, what happens to the long tail and consumer-generated media?

I'm hoping and betting that the blogware providers such as TypePad, Blogger and Six Apart, are never going to buy into this. Long-tail gateways like Yahoo! and Google should speak up and make some noise.

Suddenly, the Internet looks a lot like it did in 1998: a galexy far, far away.

The difference today is not only are the major Internet players up in arms against a non-neutral net, this time users will be, too. If there's a mantra in this industry, it has to be "It's all about the user." I see several potential user scenarios unfolding if a two-tiered system comes into play.

None are pretty.

First, it will open up opportunities for a host of new players (from Google, which has been buying up all that dark fiber to smaller start-ups) to come out with neutral net offerings. Given a choice between the Internet and a tiny wedge of corporate content, subscribers to the new fast lane will defect in droves.

After they blame every slow-loading Web site on their ISPs, municipalities and local 'Free the Net' organisations like Electronic Frontier Foundation will be spurred to accelerate public Wi-Fi, creating pockets of broadband for all users.

Worse, maybe a two-tiered Internet system just quietly falls into place. And the Web becomes very boring indeed.

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