Who Pays for Favored Net Access?

May 10th, 2006

It wasn’t so many years ago that your Internet access bill was metered by the hour. Although AOL is considered expensive today, and this is a main reason, among others, that it is hemorrhaging members, that wasn’t true when it started. Then, paying $5.00 per hour for dial-up was actually considered a bargain. True, early members got a special $4.00 hourly rate, but that was long ago and far away.

Today, you can get decent dial-up access for around $10 per month, and entry-level DSL can be had for $20, although that’s usually an introductory rate that vanishes after a year or two in favor of the real price. But if you want a higher level of performance, of several megabits per second perhaps, the price will be closer to $50.

At the same time, both the telephone and cable companies are locked in competitive battles in many markets to sell you service bundles. In addition to broadband Internet, there are various flavors of phone service and even TV. If the provider doesn’t have its own TV capability, it will make a deal with a satellite provider to deliver the goods. If you buy everything they have, there will be a decent discount.

But when you combine these services, and include a few luxuries such as a dozen or so phone features, the higher-tier of Internet service, premium cable and high definition television, it quickly adds up.

At the other hand of the line, Web portals pay bundles of cash to establish huge networks of servers and ancillary equipment to pump their data your way. And the spigots will have to get larger, as more and more firms deliver movies and other high bandwidth product to you.

Now some of the telecommunications companies have the bright idea to charge Google, Yahoo and the rest higher fees for preferred access. Since they are filling growing percentages of the available Internet pipes, they ought to be prepared to shell out extra cash from their growing coffers to help cover the extra equipment needed to receive all that stuff.

Welcome to the net neutrality controversy. The debate is in full swing in Congress, when they aren’t trying to figure out what to do about the high price of gas and other pressing issues, of course.

At one end of the discussion, there’s the feeling that it’s best to take a hands-off approach. Let the free market regulate itself, and give the telecommunications the right to charge extra to firms that hog too much bandwidth. Isn’t that only fair? I mean, why should you have to foot the bill simply because those big and fat Web sites want to push more data your way?

Net neutrality, however, dictates that a telecommunications company cannot charge extra to prioritize content. It calls for a level playing field, where content providers that don’t have lots of free cash at hand don’t get short shrift when trying to push data through the pipes. Here the need for ISPs to build bigger networks is just part of the cost of doing business. If you want faster service, it’s not as if you don’t pay for it. Broadband service is usually available in several tiers, depending on your needs and budget.

So if you want to download movies, and it’s clear more and more will be available in the years to come, you will no doubt want the files to get to you faster. So you’ll upgrade your account.

Businesses, for example, who are in need of faster upload speeds and more consistent download performance, will pay a lot extra for the privilege. Just take a few moments to compare the price differences between business and residential service.

There’s also the matter of competition. In areas where both cable and phone companies are fighting for Internet customers, performance will steadily increase, and prices will remain the same or decrease. Here in the Phoenix metropolitan area, for example, when Qwest, the local phone company, offered five megabits download speeds for its DSL customers, Cox Communications, the main cable provider, increased their download speeds to six megabits in response. Such are the joys of having choices.

Of course, when you have only one service provider, you have to accept their pricing policies or just live without.

So where’s the great debate over net neutrality going to end? Now I’m not necessarily in favor of more government regulation. We have more than enough of that already. But I’m totally against discrimination, and allowing an ISP to prioritize access to their pipes on the basis of who has a fatter wallet just doesn’t seem right. The Internet became this all-encompassing commodity because everyone had equal access, and it should stay that way.

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