Cable's Win Is Consumers' Loss

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 9:30 AM

Everybody's talking about the Supreme Court's Monday ruling on Internet file-sharing companies and digital piracy, but let's talk instead about the other decision the justices made -- the one that will really affect you.

I'm writing, of course, about the so-called Brand X decision. I wish it were a strike against Phil Collins's claim to jazz-hipster status, but no such luck. In this decision, the court said that cable companies don't have to open their Internet networks to rivals.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? It is, but not in a good way. The 6-3 decision means that cable Internet providers won't have to face competition from smaller rivals who don't have the resources to build their own networks. And the Baby Bell phone giants, who are required to share their lines, are already clamoring that yesterday's ruling means they should get the same treatment.

That's just what we need -- even less choice. It means that situations like the one that happened to me recently will continue to occur across the country.

Perhaps my own ISP situation is an example of the future of ISP "choice" that the Brand X decision may produce.

I live in Alexandria, Va., where last week I made an appointment to get Comcast to outfit my apartment with broadband Internet access. The first appointment didn't work out; the customer service rep said they called me to reschedule, though I never received a call. The second appointment foundered on similar grounds. By the time I got around to finding a human being to schedule a third appointment, I was ready to go with the competition.

But there wasn't any. The best I could do was splutter about how if this behavior continued, I'd... I'd... I'd choose Verizon DSL. But I didn't want DSL. I wanted cable. I like how reliable it is once it works, and I have enough friends who told me DSL horror stories that I didn't want to take the chance.

You see where this is going.

If the court had ruled otherwise, I might eventually be able to choose a different cable Internet provider. Under the current conditions, however, it'll be just the same old story -- Comcast or Verizon.

I know I'm not the only one out there grappling with a lack of choice in an era of choice overload. In a recent column, I asked you to share your cell phone horror stories. I've received dozens and will publish them later this week. Now I have another homework assignment: Tell me about the indignities you've suffered because your Internet access choices are limited, if you have them at all. I will share them with the rest of the world. Hopefully the six justices who ruled on the side of the cable companies will read it -- if they're not experiencing similar customer service problems with their home Internet access. Send me your stories.

A Closer Look at the Ruling

One good thing about the Brand X decision is that news sources everywhere devoted their resources to covering it, rather than going with feeds from the major newswires -- not that they were lacking. Reuters crack telecom reporter Jeremy Pelofsky produced a solid piece that ran midafternoon Monday that explained how the decision is a vote of confidence in the Federal Communications Commission.

Pelofsky noted that the decision essentially entrusts the FCC with ultimate authority in this case: "The Supreme Court backed a 2002 Federal Communications Commission decision that said cable broadband Internet service was an information service and thus free from most telephone rules, like requirements to lease network access to competitors. FCC officials had argued the move was necessary to spur more investment in high-speed Internet services. But consumer groups and independent Internet service providers like EarthLink Inc. worried that consumers would have few choices to surf the Web without some FCC safeguards. The high court decided that the FCC's decision was reasonable under the Communications Act and that the appeals court did not extend sufficient deference to the FCC as the expert agency to make its decision."

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