A senior telecommunications executive said yesterday that Internet service providers should be allowed to strike deals to give certain Web sites or services priority in reaching computer users, a controversial system that would significantly change how the Internet operates.
William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.
Or, Smith said, his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth's offering.
Network operators can identify the digital "packets" of content moving through their wires from sites and services and can block some or put others at the head of the stream.
But Smith was quick to say that Internet service providers should not be able to block or discriminate against Web content or services by degrading their performance.
Rather, he said, a pay-for-performance marketplace should be allowed to develop on top of a baseline service level that all content providers would enjoy.
"If I go to the airport, I can buy a coach standby ticket or a first-class ticket," Smith said. "In the shipping business, I can get two-day air or six-day ground."
Smith said his company supports the latest draft of a House telecommunications bill that would prohibits network operators from impeding Internet content but allow the type of marketplace Smith envisions.
Several big technology firms and public interest groups say that approach would enshrine Internet access providers as online toll booths, favoring certain content and shutting out small companies trying to compete with their offerings.
"Prioritization is just another word for degrading your competitor," said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group. "If we want to ruin the Internet, we'll turn it into a cable TV system" that carries programming from only those who pay the cable operators for transmission.
In a recent letter to Congress, a coalition of technology companies called on members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to strengthen the draft bill's "network neutrality" provisions, some of which were recently changed in response to lobbying by telephone and cable firms.
"The incredible potential of broadband will be severely compromised if network operators are permitted to be the gatekeepers of the Internet, deciding what content, applications and services succeed or fail on the Internet," wrote the coalition, which includes Amazon.com Inc., eBay Inc., Google and IAC/InterActive Corp.
Consumer groups wonder, for example, how any Web start-up that might want to challenge an incumbent could expect to outspend it to get top or even equal performance over a network charging for the privilege.
Smith, echoing recent sentiments by AT&T Inc. chief executive Edward E. Whitacre Jr., responded that network operators must be free to control the type and quality of service on the system in which they have invested heavily.
Legislating otherwise "would be the same thing as saying to Google, 'I think we ought to have regulation on Google that says when I enter a search term, the top search result is always a random event,' " Smith said, claiming that Google allows clients to pay to influence the ranking of search results. In fact, Google does not allow payments to influence general search results, although advertisers pay for top billing on the lists that run on the right side of Google's pages.
Smith said the ability to prioritize traffic would benefit consumers, such as with online services providing medical alerts. And he said his company wants to be able to assure vendors such as online-gaming firms that their subscribers will get top performance even when there is heavy network traffic, which can slow a system.
Smith said BellSouth is especially concerned about new-generation television services it wants to provide via the Internet that would require large amounts of bandwidth.
Allowing it to give priority to TV traffic would ensure that television quality does not decline when other heavy-bandwidth applications are used simultaneously.
Sohn said claims of bandwidth scarcity are overblown. The real agenda, she said, is to put rival services at a disadvantage.