Here’s a scary, thought-provoking essay by Doc Searls, spinning out the implications of this exchange between a BusinessWeek reporter and the CEO of SBC:
How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG), MSN, Vonage, and others?
How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
It’s on the backs of these “pipes” that all the content on the Internet is delivered to us, Searls points out. And the companies that laid these pipes did so at considerable expense. And Searls draws together comments from industry execs and drafts of legislation to show these companies gearing up to collect on that investment:
The carriers have been lobbying Congress for control of the Net since Bush the Elder was in office. Once they get what they want, they’ll put up the toll booths, the truck scales, the customs checkpoints–all in a fresh new regulatory environment that formalizes the container cargo business we call packet transport. This new environment will be built to benefit the carriers and nobody else. The “consumers”? Oh ya, sure: they’ll benefit too, by having “access” to all the good things that carriers ship them from content providers. Is there anything else? No.
Searls imagines three scenarios: 1) The one where the telcos get their way. 2) The one where municipal WiFi and private investment (like GoogleNet) carries the day. 3) The one where we users of the Internet reframe the debate from being about “pipes” and “packets” and “carriers” to being about “markets” and “worlds” and “places.” In other words, the Internet isn’t just a lot of bits of content (“property”) going from one end to another. It’s a place where people go to create and connect. “We go on the Net, not through it,” Searls says.
This is a vast simplification of Searls’ argument. Much good stuff is in there, including his pointers to worldofends.com, where he and David Weinberger have written up some fascinating thoughts on things like why the Internet is stupid.
Go read it, and also read the if:book entry that pointed me to it. Since running across these, I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to what the telcos seem to be fighting for, and Searls’ guess doesn’t seem very outlandish at all.
PS: I can’t imagine any developments, no matter how fiendish, would actually herald the End of the Internet, but it makes a nice attention-grabber. Sorry. 🙂