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What We Were Trying to Say...

Who knew the House would stay in late on Thursday to vote on Joe Barton's telecom bill, HR 5252?

I wrote an editorial Wednesday on Net neutrality, but we decided to hold it for Friday's paper because there were other pieces that seemed more urgent. Election Day aftermath stuff, that sort of thing. Ooops. Anyway, what I would have said is that trying to stop network operators from prioritizing traffic for a fee is going too far. It's OK to guard against sweetheart deals between network operators and their affiliates or partners, but requiring that all data of any given type be treated equally seems socialistic. You can pretend that the Net is a bastion of equality, but it's not, really. Anyone can put up a Web site, but unless they've got lots of money to spend on bandwidth or  Akamai-like content distribution services, their video streams won't look as good as AOL's or MSN's.

The real questions are whether the phone companies can use DSL or fiber lines to do what cable operators do, and whether they can offer an alternative to Akamai. The Bells want to set aside a portion of the broadband networks they build to carry TV programming. No one seems to have a problem with that. But at least some of the Bells have also talked about delivering selected Internet content to TV sets alongside ABC, NBC and 200+ other channels. Unlike other Web sites and services, this featured Web content would be delivered in pristine quality because it wouldn't have to compete for bandwidth -- it would have a dedicated channel.

This concept scares folks like Google and Yahoo, which don't want to have to pay twice to reach Web users. Others worry that the telcos and cable operators won't provide enough bandwidth for data coming in from the public Internet, effectively forcing Web sites to pay for special delivery just to be seen and heard. If that were a real possibility, the threat to free speech would warrant pre-emptive action by Congress. But there are a couple of things worth remembering here. First, it's in everyone's interests to have the telcos compete with the cable guys. If they want to build fatter pipes, then reserve a portion of their pipes for TV service, more power to them. Second, cable TV companies already do this. Their cables have room for a certain number of channels, and only a few of them are used for high-speed Internet service. Several cable operators have tried delivering selected Web sites and other data to TV sets, and the response has been underwhelming at best.

Not that we should trust the telcos to play fair here -- these are the same guys who essentially snuffed the CLECs in their infancy. The least intrusive approach, I think, would be to require broadband network operators to have non-discriminatory rates for prioritization, and bar them from degrading the delivery of Web sites or services that don't pay for special treatment. In other words, if AT&T cuts a deal with YouTube to prioritize its video traffic, the same terms would have to be available to YouTube's competitors. And if Google chose not to pay the price, Google Video shouldn't perform any worse than it did before prioritization became an option. Such an approach would let telcos and cable operators add bandwidth for the sake of priority delivery, but prevent them from doing so at the expense of the bandwidth vailable for best-effort delivery.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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