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One of the few mom-and-pop ISPs in New York, Bway may be the only one with a shop open to the public. Need a new Web site design? Ready for a high-speed connection? Just climb the stairs to the second floor. Among the 5000 home and business customers Bway has garnered in five years is one 80-year-old man who carts his computer in on a hand truck by subway from Far Rockaway. "I'm proud that we're open to the public," says Stevelman, looking cool in a black T-shirt and parachute pants with red buckles. "One of our goals is to get the unwashed masses on the Internet."
He'd also like to get everyone up to speed, with DSL phone connections. Trouble is, he says, about 40 percent of New Yorkers who want to get DSL can't, for technical reasons. It's not just people in outer-borough tenements who lack access; it's people like the executives in the Empire State Building. For them, the only choice for broadband service is cable, sold through a giant corporation like Time Warner or RCN.
"If you can't get DSL and you get cable," says Stevelman with an air of finality, "I'm out of the loop."
And you're out of a choice of providerand a lot else that comes with that choice. Cable companies, you see, unlike the phone guys, aren't legally required to open their networks to all ISPs. So if you sign up for Internet service with Time Warner or RCN or Cablevision, you're agreeing to play by their rules, to see what they want you to see, to get their brand of e-mail and their approved search engine. Period. Will this hurt Bway? Sure it will, and the over 6000 other small or specialized ISPs across the country. But it could hurt you even worse.
Your local government-authorized monopolist wields scary power: They can control what you can reach on the Internet, how fast you see it, even whether you see it at all. Driven by business interests and revenue-generating alliances, the cable companies can make the information superhighway harder to navigateunless you go where they want you to go. Using both carrot and stick, they can make it just not worth your trouble to travel to all those fascinating little byways that were once so enticing.
"They're going to create a walled garden," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. "The Internet we know was the fountainhead of diversity, competition, and innovation, where all traffic could flow freely and all points of view were available. That Internet is being hijacked by media monopolists from the cable industry."
Those monopolists will have means of making you pay. Under their rules, the only way for you to use a homegrown ISP like Bway is to shell out twiceonce for the monopolist and once for the local provider. In most cases, you won't even have that option, and if you did, you still wouldn't end up with a true Internet service provider. Instead, little outfits like Bway or BlackPower.net or the Christian Living Network would remain dependent on the big corporation to move their information on and off the Web.
Now, the big boys could share their transit system with any ISP that pays them. But right now, this just ain't happening, although a couple of the heavy hitters are testing the feasibility of letting on a few othersmostly other big boys like Juno.
"If they only open it a little," says Alexis Rosen of Panix, a 32-person ISP in Manhattan serving the high-tech elite, "they damage the small players. We are one of those small players."
Imagine an Internet highway where the small playersor obscure destinationsget no exit ramps. Free-speech advocates worry about the formerly wide-open road gradually getting riddled with speed bumps, one-way streets, and dead ends.
Shopping on the Net has been like browsing an endless city dense with narrow warrens of unique little shops. You never know what you'll find. And speeding along with broadband, shopping for info or objets should be easier than everunless you find yourself heading down a one-way street.