Monopoly neutrality

A. Michael NollIt is never good for consumers when monopolies get together. Now AT&T and Google are promoting their view of how access to the Internet should be controlled--of course, to their benefit.

AT&T, Google, and their allies have done a magnificent job at confusing the courts over the difference between computer services and telecommunication--a repeat of the confusion that started in the early 1970s. Back then the distinction really was quite clear as it is today, but it was to the benefit of a few to create confusion.

Monopoly neutralityThe provision of two-way interactive broadband telecommunication service is a duopoly in much of the United States, provided by a former Bell System company (such as AT&T or Verizon) and by a cable TV company (such as Comcast). AT&T and Verizon do not compete directly in this provision of local broadband service. They have carved up the United States with each having its own territory--just as one would expect from old-fashioned monopolists.

Decades ago AT&T owned cable TV companies. Today the cable company and the former Bell company share the local broadband market--as if they are still members of the same old family. At one time the cable company had a monopoly on the provision of broadband TV service, although satellite services changed that situation somewhat. It would seem that once being a monopolist, it is a small step to accept becoming a duopolist. That way the government can be deluded into believing that there is competition.

Net neutrality is not complicated. The distinction between content and conduit is crystal clear--so too the distinction between telecommunication and computing. Any confusion is the deliberate creation of those who are intent on protecting their monopoly (or duopoly).

Monopoly neutralityAll this really is about bypass. The duopolists do not want consumers to use the Internet to access video content directly from media sources, thereby bypassing lucrative video service that the duopolists provide over their broadband conduit or their website. This mess started in the distant past when cable companies were allowed to control both the conduit and content--a huge policy blunder by the FCC.

Today the FCC is correct on proclaiming net neutrality. The courts are wrong and victims of deliberate confusion between content and conduit. The conduit must be treated as common carriage--and regulated as such. The content carried over the conduit should freely competitive with open access to. Any and all content should be treated equally. Conduit providers should not also be content providers--and this should apply to the former Bell companies and the cable companies. At the least, there should be clear separation between these two operations to prevent preferential treatment of outsiders.

Have we not had enough of this nonsensical confusion between content and conduit for the benefit of monopolists (and duopolists) to the detriment of consumers? It might be appropriate for the US Justice Department initiate an investigation of the monopolistic behavior of the former Bell companies, the cable companies, and their new allies, such as Google.

A. MICHAEL NOLL, a regular FierceTelecom columnist, is retired professor emeritus and former dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. In the early 1970s he was involved at the White House on issues involving the difference between data communication and computing.