The largest telephone companies are engaged in the most important lobbying operation you've never heard of. Watching millions of their customers move to Internet phone service, they want to start competing with cable companies and offer video services as well. In order to do this, they plan to install faster "fiber" Internet connections to homes, but must first negotiate the right to do so with local governments in what's called a "franchise agreement".
Think twice before you write this story off as a geek issue: this seemingly arcane debate will ultimately determine the future of virtually all communications in America. Here's why.
The phone companies' new service delivers TV, phone and web service that is faster, and competes with cable companies -- which is great -- but the local governments must review their plans to make sure consumer protections are in place and the companies are offering service to all residents, not just the wealthiest. The phone companies don't want to negotiate with the local governments and obey these requirements and are trying to bypass them in national and state legislation, which has led to a significant debate.
Phone companies almost got a national franchise this year, only to be stymied by one of these necessary protections they're trying desperately to avoid, "Net Neutrality," a principle that ensures all web traffic moves at the same speed whether sent by a tiny blog or a massive company. Net Neutrality was taken off the law books last year, and public interest groups (as well as high tech companies like Google) are looking to national legislation to get our neutral network back.
If we permanently lose net neutrality, the Internet will become more like cable TV, where phone and cable companies (who together control 98% of broadband access) control what you see, how fast it downloads and how much it costs. If we win, in a few years, faster broadband speeds will allow any Web site to become a TV or radio network, breaking open the bottleneck on access and distribution. The stakes are huge.
While this past year, AT&T and Verizon pursued both national and state legislation, they now seem determined to focus on state legislation as a way to bypass Net Neutrality requirements. This month they focused on Michigan, yet they'll quickly realize they'll face opposition in the states as well. At a rally yesterday inside the Michigan State Capitol a broad array of more than 50 local members of the SavetheInternet.com coalition joined local Michigan groups to speak out against a "lame duck" vote on the "Michigan Video Franchising Bill" that would allow the phone companies to gut consumer protections, cherry-pick which communities receive high-speed broadband and video service, dodge local community access requirements, and ignore Net Neutrality.
Following the press conference, the local groups and SavetheInternet.com Coalition members delivered more than 18,000 petitions supporting Net Neutrality and urged their state senators to vote against the Michigan Video Franchising Bill. You can expect a replay of yesterday's event across the country in 2007.
But winning Net Neutrality alone wins a battle, not the war. We must ultimately break the phone/cable Internet duopoly and create real broadband competition so these gatekeepers can't operate under their terms, but will have to deal with consumer demand. One promise for broadband competition comes through "Community Internet" -- getting municipalities, schools, libraries, nonprofits, and private entrepreneurs into the broadband business and creating real competition. Info on that at www.freepress.net/communityinternet