No Neutral Ground in This Internet Battle

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, June 26, 2006

Net neutrality.

Sounds benign, but no two words have stirred more passion this year. The mere mention of the issue is enough to make a wonk explode.

Yet the public advocacy on this important topic has concealed far more than it has illuminated. Commercials on either side of the issue are confusing, opaque or downright deceptive.

More about this obfuscation later. But first, a definition.

Net neutrality, which is shorthand for network neutrality, is one of two possible answers to the following legislative question: Should cable and telephone companies be allowed to charge add-on fees to others for access to their networks?

Under a net-neutral system, the answer would be "no." If net neutrality were to lose, the answer would be "yes."

Currently, AT&T can't ask Google to pay extra for the use of its Internet switches and routers even though Google, the big search-engine Web site, uses much more bandwidth than other, smaller sites.

Such extra fees would continue to be forbidden if net neutrality legislation were to prevail in Congress. On the other hand, if AT&T Inc. and other Internet infrastructure providers defeat net neutrality, tiered pricing will be possible for the first time, and big users of the Internet could be dunned for more than they already pay.

Put another way, if net neutrality passes, the AT&Ts of the world will be forced to pay for all of their equipment upgrades themselves and could not subsidize that effort by imposing premium fees for premium services. If net neutrality fails, they will be able to recoup more of those costs than they can now from the likes of Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other major users of the World Wide Web.

At its heart, then, the battle is commercial -- over who pays how much for improvements to the Internet that we all use and sometimes love.

But that's not what the opposing sides would have you believe. "What is really a commercial fight," said Robert Pepper, senior managing director of Cisco Systems Inc., "has now become extremely emotional."

To hear partisans talk, you'd think that nothing short of the future of the Internet, or the future of cable, or even the future of telecommunications, is at stake. Now, I concede that something more than mere pricing may well be on the line here. After all, consumers will be affected -- one way or the other.

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