The Internet keeps growing more essential. People keep in touch by e-mail, read websites for news and pleasure, and shop or pay bills online. Many make their phone calls over the Net.
As high-speed lines proliferate, users will do even more, such as control gadgets and home appliances, and watch movies and TV shows. The Internet is becoming everyone's eyes and ears on the world.
That's why the issue of who controls the pipeline that delivers Internet service is so important. Clearly, when consumers are free to choose among many competitors, prices drop and quality rises.
The decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this month to allow phone companies the right to deny other Internet service providers (ISPs) such as AOL and Earthlink the use of their phone lines did, in a way, boost competition. An earlier Supreme Court decision had granted cable TV companies that right. The FCC ruling leveled the playing field for the two industries, which together control more than 90 percent of the residential broadband, or high-speed Internet, market.
Ma Bell may have been a reliable provider of phone service, but it wasn't much of an innovator. Only after deregulation did new technologies and new features emerge, and long-distance prices tumble. A cable and phone company duopoly on Internet service isn't likely to be much better. Some of their low-price offers are no better than short-term bait-and-switch deals. And both cable and phone companies want to "bundle" their Internet service with phone calls and TV service, forcing the Internet-only customer to pay a premium.
The FCC ruling prohibits the regional remnants of Ma Bell - phone companies like SBC and Verizon - from bouncing independent ISPs from their lines for a year. That will allow some time for these ISPs to cut voluntary new deals with cable and phone companies. Some of these companies may find it in their interests to keep other ISPs as customers, if only to blunt duopoly charges. But when independent ISPs are only "renting" bandwidth at terms favorable to the cable or phone company, how competitive can they really be?
The FCC also put forth a kind of "declaration of rights" for Internet users. It said anyone should be able to run any legal Internet application, and anyone should have access to any legal Internet site. That means, in essence, that those who own the pipes don't get to decide what information goes through them. It's an especially important right if consumers have only two choices of service providers. But the FCC has no authority to enforce its declaration. Congress should pass legislation to put teeth into the sentiment.
It will be hard for new technologies to replace these entrenched market leaders. High-speed Internet access over electrical power lines shows some promise, but that technology must prove it's economically viable and won't interfere with ham and emergency radio signals. Many cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, are banking on wi-fi wireless access to bring residents online. And other wireless answers may emerge.
President Bush has urged that high-speed Internet service be made available to all Americans by 2007. To help do that, the FCC and Congress must think beyond the cable and phone industries and clear the way for broad Internet competition.