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Monday, March 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Idea of Web express lane sparks hot debate

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Al Gore spent a good part of the early '90s preaching the promise of the Internet. He became known for calling it the "information superhighway."

The nickname didn't last, but the highway analogy has re-emerged in a debate about the next generation of the online world, with some forecasting a traffic jam.

As the updated version of the analogy goes, every bit of data online — Web pages, music files, video — is on a highway, moving at similar speeds to computers and mobile devices around the world.

But what if there were an express toll lane? What if companies with money could pay broadband providers to have their sites and services move faster than everyone else's?

Carriers such as AT&T say the concept is their future business model. Critics say it may well ruin the Web.

At the center of this debate is the value of "net neutrality," a principle that has guided the Internet for more than a decade. It states that Internet service providers can't favor any online content over another.

Some say the concept is why the Internet has developed into such a robust, innovative medium. With so many sites online competing for the attention of Web surfers, net neutrality allows for David and Goliath to be more equally matched.

But as more consumers switch from dial-up to broadband, Internet use is poised to move more toward transferring large amounts of data such as full-length movies.

AT&T and Verizon assert that companies such as Google and Apple are going to make a fortune on the backs of their networks, and it's time they start paying their share.

Telecommunication companies are spending billions on upgrading their networks to handle the next generation of online services. Rather than passing the costs on to consumers, they'd rather charge the Web sites taking up the most bandwidth.

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Companies offering data-heavy services such as online gaming, phone calls and downloadable video could pay network providers across the country to have their content prioritized, meaning that it would reach customers faster than everyone else's.

Prioritizing content may also make sure certain online services don't falter. As features such as digital TV and phone move online, access providers say separating those large groups of data will make them more reliable.

Under the present system, consumers could suffer inconsistent TV signals and choppy phone calls, according to Jay Birnbaum, vice president of Current Communications, a Germantown, Md., broadband over power-line provider.

"If everything is neutral, then nothing will work the way you want it," Birnbaum said.

Broadband providers have promised that they will never block or degrade the speed of a Web site. Prioritizing content will simply mean certain sites will travel faster than standard service speeds.

Critics charge that an "express lane" would change the way people access and distribute content. They predict an Internet where depending on your provider, BestBuy.com might work great, but Amazon.com could be permanently sluggish. Startups, meanwhile won't be able to compete.

The story most often told is how online powerhouse Google started as a project by two college students. Under the new system, net-neutrality proponents say, the Googles of the future will have the deck stacked against them.

"It could have a chilling effect on that entry-level Web publisher who may not have the financial wherewithal to pay those fees," said Steven Vonder Haar, head of multimedia consultants Interactive Media Strategies.

Several nations, including the United Kingdom and Japan, have made net neutrality the law of the land. As Congress gears up to rewrite telecommunication laws, many are pushing for a similar provision.

At a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation hearing on net neutrality last month, politicians split mostly along party lines.

Democrats sided with the content makers, predicting that if the Web gets an express lane, sites without enough capital will be left behind.

Republicans opposed outlawing a potential business model that may not be harmful and said that companies building the nation's communication networks deserve to make money off the endeavor.

"You do deserve a return on investment is the bottom line if you're going to build out these networks," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said during the hearing. "If we can't give them a return on investment, Wall Street is not going to loan them the money to do this."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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