Sunday, June 18, 2006

Whose Choice Is It, Anyway?

The Net Neutrality battles are far from over, but it’s clear that the telcos and cable operators are going to get the right to offer different classes of service to different content and service providers, depending on:

  1. How much they’re willing to pay, and
  2. How much they compete with offerings from those same telcos and cable MSOs.

We saw a similar situation not too long ago, when the telcos convinced the FCC to stop forcing them to give competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) equal access to their networks. Their argument then, as now, was that they needed to make huge investments in infrastructure in order to offer consumers broadband access, and that they couldn’t make those investments if they were forced to make their broadband networks available to competitors at wholesale prices. The telcos prevailed, and what do we have? Virtually the entire competitive DSL services industry is gone. Is your DSL service any better? Unless you live in a handful of AT&T or Verizon markets, the answer is no.

AT&T and Verizon argue that they should have the right to choose who they do business with, and under what terms. It’s hard to disagree with them, until you realize that their infrastructures were bought and paid for by their customers, who paid governmentally-mandated prices for telephone service to them as monopoly suppliers for decades. It’s not their infrastructure, it’s their customers’.

And what about their customers’ choices? The CLECs are gone, and cable is still a poor substitute for telephony services. Telephone companies’ customers have paid for decades for a network that could now give them a choice, but the FCC and Congress are systematically depriving them of the opportunity to choose their suppliers. And with recent research indicating that it may not even be worthwhile for cable operators or telcos to offer their customers a discount if they subscribe to more services, we’re headed back to where we were before the 1996 Telecommunications Act: For each market, we’ll have one company that offers telephony services, one that offers video services, a couple of satellite television providers, and that’s about it.

The best way to fight for customer choice is to do business with companies that support it. Tell your phone and cable suppliers that if they don’t give you equal access to competing telephony and video services, you’ll get it yourself. Find out which telcos and cable operators contributed to your state and U.S. Representatives and Senators, and get the word out—they can either represent you or the communications companies, but not both. As they become available, get your broadband services from a non-telco-affiliated wireless company, a satellite company, or a broadband-over-powerline provider. You’re just as entitled to be able to choose how you spend your money as the telecommunications companies.

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