The Incredible Shrinking Internet

When Cable Monopolies Rule the Web, Everyone Loses

Say you connect to the Internet through AT&T's cable service, and you're searching for that out-of-print adventure story you loved as a kid. You're using AT&T's house-brand portal, Excite@Home, because that's the path of least resistance. If you go "shopping" for books on Excite@Home, you will automatically be zipped along to Amazon.com. If you do a search for out-of-print books, the screen will still be plastered with ads for Amazon.com. Maybe the search engine will come up with Powell's Books of Portland, Oregon—or, maybe it won't.

"Information on search engines may be limited to those Web sites that the ISP has a personal business stake in providing," says David Butler of Consumers Union.

Powell's, a family-owned institution, doesn't have the money to pay for ads on Excite@Home, says Darin Sennett, who designs Powell's Web site. If your search engine doesn't list Powell's, then you lose out. Why? "We have more used and out-of-print books in one place than anywhere else, cheaper and in better shape," says Sennett. "Amazon comes to us for them. We're the source."

Bway.net’s Stevelman: “If there’s content on any of our Web sites that bothers Time Warner, they can block it.”
photo: Tara Engberg
Bway.net’s Stevelman: “If there’s content on any of our Web sites that bothers Time Warner, they can block it.”

If you're determined, you can find your way to Powells.com. "But," says Sennett, "you have to swim upstream."


Speed Bumps on the Highway

When you sign up for cable broadband, you expect to travel fast. And when you go where the cable operators make money, you will speed along. But they can regulate traffic so that other Web sites come up . . . well, really slow.

Info comes to you faster when the cable operator has "cached" it—literally stored it—on servers or data hubs near your home. "Caching is keeping the content local and refreshed and easily available," Chester explains. If you live in New York, for example, "your ISP may keep content from San Francisco nearyour house in Brooklyn; they don't have to go to San Francisco."

More and more, though, content providers are forced to choose between paying cable companies for speedy caching or offering pages that are slow to download. If the site you want to reach can't or won't pay, you'll have to wait. If you do, you'll be more patient than most. Studies show that most people will wait three to nine seconds for something to download, then they'll click goodbye.

"It's like opening your refrigerator rather than making a trip to the convenience store," explains Chester. "Are you hungry? Just open up the AOL Time Warner refrigerator. It's all there. But if you want alternative perspectives on health care, pro-choice options, alternative retailers, or independent bookstores, it will take longer."

So what will happen to those small, esoteric sites, the nonprofits, the political voices? "If the good search engines go slower," says Bway's Stevelman, "people will have less information. And all the small ISPs will be wiped out."


The Dead End

The really scary scenario for advocates of open access to broadband is that cable companies have the power not just to slow info, but to block it completely. If Time Warner should hook up with a big search engine, posits Rosen, the company could close the gate to others.

Already some search engines are accepting money to rank paying companies higher than others, so a query about running shoes will result in a list of products from the advertiser. For regular consumers, it's not always apparent which search engines have paid placement and which don't. Now, with the rise of cable monopolies, search engines may be forced to bring up the names of businesses the broadband providers have arrangements with. "As it is," Rosen adds, "pure search engines like Google are getting rarer."

Even more frightening, cable providers could just rope off certain parts of the Internet that they feel are immoral or inimical to their interests. It's a free-speech issue that's got people in many quarters upset, from the ACLU and the Consumers Union to a host of ISPs.

"If there's content on any of our Web sites that bothers Time Warner," says Stevelman, who's pretty worked up about this, "they can block it."


Open the Highway

The solution, say free-speech advocates, is to unclog the pipes. Give access to any ISP that will pay a fairrate. When you have a choice of 10 Internet providers—or 30—and the one you've signed up for won't take you where you want to go, you can just switch.

"It's in each competitor's interest to give as much content as quickly as possible," says Wendy Rosenberg, a senior executive at Juno, "because others are waiting to take that customer."

That's the way it now works with DSL. Under the national Telecommunications Act of 1996, phone companies must allow all comers to use their wires. But up to now, cable service has been regulated by municipalities, not the feds.

Could cities and towns demand open access? They could, but so far they've been pretty wimpy. Take New York City, which has franchise agreements with 11 companies, including a recently renewed deal with Time Warner, to provide cable broadband. The city simply accepted Time Warner's assurances that the company would try to provide access. "We did raise the issue of openness," says one New York City government source, "and we got what we could at the time."

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