The Magazine

Give Me Bandwidth . . .

No one to root for in the net neutrality debate.

Jun 26, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 39 • By ANDY KESSLER
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So how do we fix this? Are we stuck in telco hell? Silicon Valley can ignite a political arms race and spend more on lobbyists, but why play an old man's game? Instead, these webbies should get creative, change the rules. Bam-Bam, not Barney Rubble is the future. Take the telcos and cable companies out at the knees.

Here's an idea: Start screaming like a madman and using four letter words--like K-E-L-O. And fancier words like "eminent domain." I know, I know. This sounds wrong. These are privately owned wires hanging on poles. But so what? The government-mandated owners have been neglecting them for years--we are left with slums in need of redevelopment. Horse-drawn trolleys ruled cities, too, but had to be destroyed to make way for progress. How do we rip the telco's trolley tracks out and enable something modern and real competition?

Forget the argument that telcos need to be guaranteed a return on investment or they won't upgrade our bandwidth. No one guarantees Intel a return before they spend billions in R&D on their next Pentium chip to beat their competitors at AMD. No one guarantees Cisco a return on their investment before they deploy their next router to beat Juniper. In real, competitive markets, the market provides access to capital.

Without even being paid by the hour, I read through the Supreme Court's Kelo v. City of New London eminent domain rulings. Surely there exists some clever Silicon Valley counsel to twist the wording of the precedent. The telcos may want to treat the Internet like a shopping mall that they own, but the premises are looking awfully sketchy. So start with this line: "Economic underdevelopment and stagnation are also threats to the public sufficient to make their removal cognizable as a public purpose."

Sure, property rights are important, but that doesn't mean we can't shake a cattle prod at our stagnant monopolists and say "update or get out of the way." The mantra should be "megabits to phones and gigabits to homes." We'll only get there via competition. Regulations--even regulations that look friendly to the Googles and Yahoos and hostile to the telcos--will just freeze us where we are today.

IN THE LONG RUN, technology doesn't sleep. You can't keep competitive King Kong in chains. But why wait a decade while lobbyists run interference? If Congress does nothing, we will probably end up paying more for a fast network optimized for Internet phone calls and video and shopping. But this may not be the only possible outcome. Maybe the incumbent network providers--the Verizons, Comcasts, AT&Ts--can be made to compete; threatening to seize their stagnating networks via eminent domain is just one creative idea to get them to do this. A truly competitive, non-neutral network could work, but only if we know its real economic value. If telcos or cable charge too much, someone should be in a position to steal the customer. Maybe then we'd see useful services and a better Internet. Sounds like capitalism.

What new things? It's not just more bandwidth and better Internet video--how about no more phone numbers, just a name and the service finds you? How about subscribing to a channel and being able to watch it when and where you want, on your TV, iPod, or laptop? How about a baby monitor you can view through your cell phone? Something worth paying for. And that's just the easy stuff.

We don't even know what new things are possible. Bandwidth is like putty in the hands of entrepreneurs--new regulations are cement. We don't want a town square or a dilapidated mall--we want a vibrant metropolis. Net neutrality is already the boring old status quo. But don't give in to the cable/telco status quo either. Far better to have competition, as long as it's real, than let Congress shape the coming communications chaos and creativity.

Andy Kessler is a former hedge fund manager turned author. His next book, The End of Medicine: How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor, is out in July.