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Build It, Own It? Network Neutrality Looms as Divisive Issue

Everyone has fuzzy feelings about "Field of Dreams." Kevin Costner in a bucolic Iowa cornfield hears a voice, builds a ballpark, and "he," Shoeless Joe Jackson, comes.

But the ballpark bankrupts Costner, and the bank's ready to foreclose. Only the magical appearance of lines of fans saves him and his family.

What if you had built the ballpark? How much would you charge for box seats versus bleachers? Would you let just any ghost player on your field, or only the stars? (In the movie, they ban Ty Cobb, after all.) What if big tour buses started showing up, perhaps stealing seats from kids and families?

Broadband network operators face parallel dilemmas, but not in a Hollywood setting imbued with magical powers (and none of them look like Kevin Costner, either). They sit at the control nexus of vast digital pipelines they spent tens of billions to build, hoping fans would come.

Consumers and critics alike have been clamoring for years for true broadband content to justify the added subscription expense of broadband access. Now that era has begun. But the sheer bandwidth use of some sites, as well as traffic generated by emerging Net-based technologies such as VoIP have triggered a response long hinted at by the Costners of cable and DSL.

Ed Whitacre, CEO of recently merged SBC and AT&T, was the first to throw down the gauntlet to Google, Vonage and others seeking to hog bandwidth. In a tendentious Business Week interview he declared: "What they would like to do is use my pipes [for] free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it."

They own the pipes. But what travels along those pipes embodies a dearly held American principle: freedom. Freedom of information (as long as it doesn't harm national security or our privacy). Freedom to consume what we want, when we want it (as long as it's not illegal). That very principle has been invoked time and time again on Capitol Hill and in the Supreme Court by an alliance of e-commerce and broadband providers that now looks in danger of dissolving.

WHO'S ZOOMIN' WHO?

It's the principle that informs the concept of network neutrality, or 'Net neutrality, which holds that users should be free to access content, and providers should ensure optimum network performance.

That's all fine in principle, but what happens if bandwidth hogging, spam or viruses degrade network quality? That's the clear end of the debate spectrum, where consumers and content providers don't contest network operator rights. For example, nobody blinked when operators decided to tier subscriptions based on download speeds.

The other end of the spectrum gets contentious.

Do operators have the right to cut deals with some content providers who want speedier access to their sites, ensuring cached content or favorable packet handling? What about the case of Madison River, a North Carolina telco that blocked IP phone traffic until Vonage screamed and the FCC stepped in? Madison River was rolling out its own telephony and data service; should it free its pipes for competitors to use?

"There's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using," Whitacre said in the interview. "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

Argue with Whitacre and he'll be sure to point out his company's additional $5 billion infrastructure investment to roll out IP-based TV and data service to 18 million homes by 2008. This, despite a stagnant stock price and continuing erosion of his landline business.

You can hear him saying: Isn't this what you feds, consumers and content providers wanted? More competition to lower prices and improve service?

Other than its Madison River intervention, the FCC so far has been loath to join the fray, but the issue has moved onto the Hill in the form of several bills.

Recent bills by Republican senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and John Ensign of Nevada, and a House bill from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), have laid out varying degrees of network neutrality protection, but the vagueness of such pronouncements indicates a looming brouhaha once the lobbyists come into play.

CNET columnist Mark Del Bianco, a communications lawyer, proposes an intriguing solution to the simmering issue.

Low-cost or free municipal WiFi networks would compete with and essentially force cable and DSL providers to keep their networks open, Del Bianco argues. Whitacre would have a politically indefensible position if he abandoned network neutrality in one market only to remain open in another.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps (or in Spanish, quizás, quizás, quizás).

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell didn't want to act until there was a problem, arguing at the time that federal intervention might impede new business models and investment.

Well, now there's a problem, and Powell's successor shouldn't duck it.

Will Workman can be reached care of TV Technology.