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DSL headed for a monopoly?

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 29, 2002
(Issue 2013, Surfing Lessons)

The last year and a half has been a brutal one for high-speed Internet service, especially for residential subscribers.

First, NorthPoint went belly-up, stranding tens of thousands of home DSL customers. Excite@Home hit a funk that caused Cox Cable to brings its residential cable modem Internet service in-house. Rhythms and other DSL providers also found themselves in financial straits, meaning that if you want home broadband now, you're pretty much limited to the phone company or the cable company.

To be sure, many Internet Service Providers still offer DSL service – but nearly all of them now can only do so in partnership with the local telephone company, the so-called Baby Bells.

Already, we've seen consumers' choices reduced. The Baby Bells no longer offer the Synchronous DSL (SDSL), which featured upload speeds as high as the download speeds. Instead, the only residential DSL service is ADSL – the "A" standing for asynchronous, meaning that your upload speeds are limited – generally to 128kbps, the same as the ancient ISDN standard, and only a little more than twice what a good dial-up account offers.

The situation has gotten so bad than even Congress has heard about it. And when Congress hears about a problem, Congress does what it always does – it passes a bill.

Making things worse

As usual when it comes to technology, Congress has it all backwards. (This is the same outfit that gave us the Communications Decency Act a few years back – took the Supreme Court about three minutes to declare that unconstitutional.)

In late February, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would remove any regulation of DSL services.

The Baby Bells had pushed hard for this, arguing that current rules requiring them to offer their high-speed lines to re-sellers at a set price is curbing their ability to innovate.

What it's really curbing is their ability to shut out the competition and force-feed us, their customers, the same shoddy service at inflated prices their voice lines are already famous for.

Regardless, the House bill (H.R. 1542), co-sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and John Dingell, D-Mich., would remove these few regulations meant to protect the rest of us.

After the bill passed the House, Tauzin was quoted as saying, "It's about making sure the Internet is free from the bureaucrats who might regulate it to death."

But Tauzin's rationale doesn't match up well with reality. The fact is that the phone companies have done a terrible job with DSL already – they only reluctantly offer any service at all because they're afraid of losing everything to the cable television carriers, who are now offering local phone service and finding many willing takers.

Besides, if it's bureaucrats Tauzin fears, what on earth is he doing turning control of broadband delivery over to the phone companies? Has this man never dealt with his local Bell? They're full of bureaucrats. The government hardly has a monopoly on bureaucrats.

On to the Senate

For those of us who use broadband, our best hope of true innovation comes from the other branch of Congress. The Senate seems less enthusiastic about the Baby Bells' ability to regulate themselves than do their colleagues in the House. The Associated Press reported that the bill might not even make it to a vote in the Senate – that it might be left to die a slow death in committee.

By ensuring that the phone network remains open and accessible to all Internet carriers, the government can best do its part in helping the Internet fulfill its promise. By having competing companies all vying for the public's money, we create real competition – and it's only from competition that innovation and progress arise.

What we've seen from the 'Net so far is just scratching the surface of what's possible. But that's not going to happen if the phone companies have a monopoly.