The Incredible Shrinking Internet

When Cable Monopolies Rule the Web, Everyone Loses

Great. It's true that the two big cable monopolies, Time Warner and AT&T, claim they intend to grant access to other ISPs—if they can work out the technical problems. Both have small pilot projects under way to test feasibility. Meanwhile, west of the Mississippi, a company called Wide Open West is building a brand-new high-speed cable network to serve the residential and small-business market, and it will take any ISP that wants in. "Our goal," says senior vice president Jim Higgins, is to liberate cable subscribers from the Time Warners of the world." Because their fiber-optic network is new, Wide Open West can build in the capacity for access, where the older companies will have to do what Higgins calls a "retrofit."

It's not clear yet how the trials by Time Warner and AT&T will work out or how many ISPs they'll let on. Advocates say 20 to 25 is a good number in large markets. What they definitely don't want is for the feds to force them to open up.

"We think legislation is not necessary to make it happen," says Mike Luftman, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. "It's going to happen because there's a marketplacereason for it to happen."

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.”

In Texas, Time Warner has made ISPs an offer they can't accept, according to The Washington Post. The big-muscle guys are demanding that independent ISPs fork over 75 percent of subscriber fees and 25 percent of advertising and other revenues in exchange for riding their pipes. Granted, this is just Time Warner's initial proposal, but the ISPs are outraged.

If this is Time Warner's idea of a "marketplace" solution, no wonder open-access advocates, who include many of the ISPs who stand to be excluded, want the government to step in. Federal action could come in the form of legislation—two bills dealing with the issue are now languishing in Congress—or regulation by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.

The FCC is now being pressed hard on this—more so since a federal appeals court in June defined cable broadband as a "telecommunications" service subject to federal oversight. The agency could require AOL Time Warner to open the pipes to all ISPs and to give equal treatment to data passing through—including equal caching of content and "nondiscriminatory" menus and navigation aids. The FTC could also go to court to block the merger if AOL and Time Warner don't agree to let other ISPs use the system.

The outcry is growing stronger. People are waking up to the very real threat cable monopolies pose to the open nature of the Internet. One media advocate, Anthony Riddle of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, likens the stranglehold of the cable companies to Soviet domination of the media. When he went to Russia with former president Jimmy Carter a few years ago, to help write laws on TV and radio autonomy, he asked a Russian what the worst thing had been about government control of the media. He still remembers the answer. "All the wires ran through a switch on one man's desk," said the former Soviet citizen. "He could pull the switch at any time."

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