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It Googles The Mind

3/03/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

If you take a step back, remove your corporate hat and take a hard look at the net neutrality debate that has been raging in recent weeks in Washington among Google Inc., academics, telephone companies and cable operators, all played out in front of elected officials, you feel like you’re watching a three-ring circus.

The noise telcos have made about charging for high-use applications has apparently sent Google scanning the world for engineers, dark fiber, servers and routers to build its “own” Internet before AT&T Inc. and company prevent Google from its God-given right to reach the American people and make lots and lots of money.

Since Google can’t “trust” the phone companies, and perhaps cable, to keep broadband connections untolled, save for the monthly access fee to consumers, Google “needs” to make sure it can reach consumers.

If you listen long enough to the rhetoric, you’d think the republic will rise and fall on this very issue.

Listen folks, it won’t. This net neutrality fight is about billion-dollar-a-year companies fighting other billion-dollar-a-year companies over the next billion dollars that can be made.

And the politicians who are stepping onto soapboxes, pontificating that they will defend the American public’s right to go to any Web site they wish is classic Beltway opportunism.

First, a few tenets from Business 101: Cable and telephone companies are giant businesses. Businesses need revenue and customers. That’s their goal in life. High-speed data is a very nice revenue stream. If cable and telcos start blocking or slowing access to any Internet information, especially given all the current publicity, customers will simply leave for another broadband provider the very next day. That’s bad business. You don’t need an MBA, or a piece of legislation, to figure that out.

Second, tiered access already exists. It’s called a virtual private network service. Thousands of businesses are paying telephone companies — and cable companies, for that matter — extra money each month to get more dedicated bandwidth. It’s a common business practice, and the republic has not fallen.

It’s understandable, then, that the telcos would seek similar business arrangements for “consumer” applications and see what the market would bear. Yes, it might be short-sighted from a public opinion perspective. But they also want to see a return on their nationwide backbone investment.

Remember, Verizon Communications and AT&T own their own backbone, while the cable industry leases national backbone capacity, just like Google. So cable, ever wary of the political winds in Washington, isn’t as worried about Google, Apple or MSN traffic on backbones, as AT&T might be.

The politicians are worried about protecting Americans’ right to access Web sites and fear falling behind other nations in the broadband “race.” So the highest public policy ground they can find is protecting my Internet access rights from phantom threats?

What about getting broadband in more U.S. homes, especially the poor and the less educated? What about getting broadband into more homes so teleworking can increase in the face of the nation’s reliance on foreign oil?

Those larger issues seem to have gotten lost in the fight to protect Google from AT&T.

Most U.S. citizens have at least two choices for broadband service and wireless companies are close to offering a third. America’s capitalist system can’t do much better than that. Google’s Vin Cerf moans that Americans have only two choices. In most countries, they’d be lucky to have those two choices. And those choices are causing digital subscriber line prices to dip below $20 a month.

Nothing prevents Google from spending $50 billion or $100 billion to wire each home in the U.S. with broadband. But nothing in their dark fiber rumblings seems to indicate they’re ready to make that type of final last-mile commitment, a commitment the cable and telephone companies have already made.

You don’t hear Google wiring schools with broadband for free, or laying fiber to offer broadband local area networks for hospitals or building broadband plant to increase the number of teleworkers in the U.S.

The marketplace, which includes negotiations between Internet application companies, like Google, and broadband service providers, like the telephone and cable companies, should rule over any law Washington might pass. Case closed.

September