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Cable Broadband: More Like A Phone Or More Like The Internet?

How broad is your broadband? What I mean to ask is whether you consider your cable modem more like a telephone or more like an information service?

Do you even care?

You may not, but your wallet will.

That is, depending on what the Supreme Court has to say about this case. The Court will hear arguments on it this week.

What gives? It has to do with the first and second questions I asked. Here's the skinny: Last year, the Ninth Circuit decided the case of National Cable & Telecommunications Ass'n. v. Brand X Internet Services. The intermediate court determined that cable broadband service is a "telecommunication service" and not an "information service" as classified by the FCC.

The import is that telecommunications is regulated, say even heavily regulated. "Information services," on the other hand, are not. The dispute whether cable will be classified as one or the other has to do with control, and the ultimate regulator: money.

Yep, capitalism gets the rap once again. If your cable modem is equivalent to a telephone, then cable companies have to provide access to both Brand X and Earthlink. You know, just like AT&T had to open up its long distance lines for access by the smaller carriers.

On the other hand, if your cable modem is more like an information service, well, then cable companies wouldn't have to provide that access. They'd only be regulated by the cities and counties they operate in now, not by the FCC.

What about telephone companies that provide DSL? They're regulated by the FCC as "information services." It's the ISPs like Earthlink and Brand X that want the cable companies and the telephone companies to provide them with part of that uplink and downlink.

Cable has a sweet deal right now - it doesn't play in either field. No telephone-style regulations and it doesn't have to provide access to others. It has to answer only to cities and counties for periodic rate changes.

The FCC and telephone companies want cable classified as "information services." Surprisingly, the federal government believes less regulation will foster competition - and innovation. Other government officials, like the California Public Utilities Commission argue the other side: without regulation, consumers are at the mercy of the cable companies for pricing of services.

Funny, I thought that's what happens every year when we renew the cable company franchise in our cities.

Whatever the decision is, it will affect some 19 million of us (me included), and forever affect how we pay for internet access. Most important, however, will be whether money will go toward complying with regulations or developing the internet.

How do you vote?


Posted by J. Craig Williams on Tuesday, March 29, 2005

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