Broadband Briefings

Published by NetAction Issue No. 9 April 5, 2000
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Bandwidth Blues by the Bay
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Bandwidth Blues by the Bay

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano wants the City's cable Internet access policy to serve as a "model" ordinance that could be copied by other cities. The problem is, it's the wrong model.

On March 30, Ammiano announced plans to introduce legislation that would give San Francisco the dubious distinction of being the first -- and possibly only -- city to impose specific terms and conditions on cable operators that offer high-speed Internet access over their networks.

Going well beyond the regulated access proposed by a handful of other cities, Ammiano's plan would also regulate content by putting restrictions on the cable operator's proprietary content and preventing cable operators from setting limits on video streaming.

The whole proposal is a bad idea, but the video streaming regulation is especially troublesome because where limits have been imposed it's been to prevent a few customers from usurping so much bandwidth that other customers experience a slowdown in service. Nevertheless, proponents of regulated access have been critical of cable content providers like Excite@Home for setting terms of use aimed at preventing a few customers from using a disproportionate share of bandwidth.

Besides, cable operators aren't the only Internet service providers facing the "bandwidth blues." Recent news reports indicate that Pacific Bell Internet service subscribers have been experiencing delays of up to 12 hours in the transmission of email -- a problem the company blames on the popularity of video and audio streaming by its DSL customers.

The fact is, both technologies are just emerging. Less than 5% of all Internet users subscribe to high-speed service, and if San Francisco adopts Ammiano's proposal, investment in the city's cable broadband market will be discouraged. That would leave the PacBell phone monopoly in control of San Francisco's high-speed Internet access market, and that would leave consumers with fewer choices and higher prices.

Sound familiar? It should, since it's pretty much the same scenario we've seen in the local phone service market. When the Telecommunications Act was approved by Congress in 1996, consumers were promised a choice of local phone service providers. There were about 38 million people using the Internet that year. Four years later, the number of Internet users has soared to more than 100 million, but only a handful of consumers have a choice of local phone service providers.

That's because telephone service is regulated, and the Internet is not. It's necessary to regulate local phone monopolies since the industry is not yet competitive. But competition is developing on its own with the Internet, so regulating it would be a mistake. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman William Kennard understands this, which is why he's stood up to a host of industry and consumer groups that have been clamoring for regulation.

Technically, it may not even be possible to regulate Internet access as Ammiano proposes. Internet service providers aren't regulated now, and they don't all have similar resources, networks, or technology. Ammiano's one-size-fits-all approach isn't workable.

The proposed ordinance asserts that San Francisco has the right to adopt and enforce such regulations, but exactly how San Francisco would even enforce such requirements isn't clear Who would be responsible for investigating complaints if ISPs weren't satisfied with the terms of service that cable operators were offering?

State and federal regulators have been grappling with similar questions for five years now, in the ongoing effort to open local phone service to competition. But consumers are no closer to meaningful competition today than they were four years ago, a fact that proponents of regulated access should take note of. If San Francisco decides to regulate Internet access, we can expect to see cable companies, ISPs and consumer groups bickering over the terms and conditions for a long time.

The vast majority of San Francisco's residents -- like Internet users everywhere -- share the worthy goal of ensuring widespread access to affordable high-speed Internet service. But regulating the Internet isn't going to get us there nearly as quickly as the competitive market will.

About Broadband Briefings

Broadband Briefings is a free electronic newsletter, published by NetAction to promote policies that encourage rapid and widespread deployment of high-speed Internet access. NetAction is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and to educating the public, policycmakers, and the media about technology policy issues.

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