Imagine the outcry if a local phone company started preventing customers from calling Lands' End to place an order and redirected their calls to L.L.Bean, which had paid the phone company to be the exclusive purveyor of down jackets to its customers. And surely lawyers at Arnold & Porter wouldn't stand for it if they had to rebate to the phone company 5 percent of any billings for advice delivered by phone.
These are exactly the kinds of restrictions and tolls, however, that the cable industry and some phone companies want to be free to impose on communications carried over high-speed Internet lines. Why, ask the Comcast people, should they let Disney sell movies to their customers over their wires in direct competition with their pay-per-view movie offerings? Or why shouldn't Microsoft have to share some of the revenue from its Xbox Internet game site with SBC Communications, after SBC went to the expense of installing the high-speed lines that allow its customers to connect to the site?
The issue is now front and center at the Federal Communications Commission as it considers whether and how to regulate companies that provide broadband service. The political and philosophical leanings of the commission's Republican majority will be to let the marketplace discipline the owners of the "pipes" and ensure that consumers get what they want at a reasonable price. But in this case, its not clear how much real competition there will be if most Americans have only a monopoly cable company and a near-monopoly phone company to choose from for their broadband service.