Will the Internet stay fast and cheap?

Commentator Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

SCOTT JAGOW: If you're like me, you don't really care how you get your Internet. As long as it's there when you need it, everything's cool. But this might make us care. The House is debating a bill that could determine the future of the Internet — and how much it costs. Let's hear what commentator Robert Reich has to say about it:

ROBERT REICH: On one side are the companies that pipe the Internet into our homes and businesses — phone companies like AT&T and Verizon, cable companies like Comcast. Let's call them the pipe companies.

On other side are the people and companies that send Internet content through the pipes. Some are big outfits like Yahoo, Google and Amazon or Bank of America and Citigroup, and media companies pumping in movies and TV shows. But most are little guys: Mom-and-pop operations specializing in antique egg-beaters or Brooklyn Dodger memorabilia, anarchists, kooks, zealots, personal publishers and gazillions of bloggers including my humble little blog and maybe even yours.

Until now, a basic principle of the Internet has been that the pipe companies can not discriminate among content providers. Everyone who puts stuff on the Internet — no matter how big or powerful they are — is treated the same. It's called Internet democracy.

But now the pipe companies want to charge the content providers depending how fast and reliably the content will be delivered. That means that the big content providers will have to pay them lots of money. And the little content people will be left in the slowest and least-reliable pipes. Without net neutrality it will take you five minutes to download my blog.

The pipe companies claim that unless they can start charging, they won't be able to invest in the next generation of networks. Well that's ridiculous. They're already making lots of money off consumers connected to the Internet. They just figure they can make more money charging the big content providers for the best service.

The bill to be voted on would, in effect, give the pipe companies the green light to go ahead with their plans. But it won't happen if the big content providers use their lobbying clout to demand net neutrality.

The financial services sector, for example, is already spending billions on information technology, including online banking. Why would they want to spend billions more paying the pipe companies for the Internet access they already have?

Only if they accept the dubious argument made recently by Verizon's chief Washington lobbyist that if the financial services industry supports net neutrality it won't get the sophisticated data links it will need in the future. And only if big finance and other big content providers figure they can shift the extra costs on to their consumers anyway.

So what will happen? Stay tuned for the next episode of Internet democracy versus monopoly capitalism.

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