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You Can Have Broadband, You Just Can't Use It

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

This goes back a month or so, but it's worth noting regardless as it appears the policy in question has not changed, but rather, appears to be getting more restrictive. Specifically, the policy is one enacted by cable Internet providers which attempts to prohibit customers from, well, using much of the Internet. It is especially apropos after recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deregulate cable and DSL Internet services, placing all broadband access in the hands of a few national cable and phone companies.

This Washington Post article describes some of the activities that are denied to cable Internet subscribers, including:

  • prohibitions on the use of private corporate networks that allow employees to work from home
  • restrictions on adding hardware such as servers and game boxes to the networks
  • restricted access to certain bandwidth-intensive sites

Additionally, RoadRunner has allegedly been involved in a more or less silent war against customers using file sharing software. Their service is rumored to detect which customers are using such applications and block them. The music companies are no doubt jumping for joy as the primary target seems to be the file swappers. However, other companies and organizations which use distributed computing models or are not trading music illegally have reason to worry. After all, it is hard to imagine how RoadRunner distinguishes between illegal music swapping and legitimate uses of the Internet -- without invading customer privacy, that is.

As a result of such restrictions and prohibitions, some of the computer and Internet industries' heavy hitters have gone to the FCC to protest the rules. They include Microsoft, Dell, Intel, and IBM, and Amazon.com. They argue that such restrictions would "limit innovation and consumers' freedom, which have been the engines of the information age."

Though I tend to agree, it is important to note that their interests are, of course, self-serving. Microsoft, for instance, released the Xbox gaming console this past year. It is capable of connecting to servers over the Internet, allowing gamers to play against other people from around the world. It would appear, however, that this activity may be restricted by the cable Internet companies' subscriber agreements.

We've noted the FCC moves towards deregulation in the past. We've also discussed the new pricing model that cable companies seem keen on, moving away from an "all you can eat" model to tiered pricing: the more you use, the more you pay. Now, it would seem that cable Internet companies are arbitrarily denying access to pieces of the Internet and entire ways of using the Internet regardless of their legality. One wonders what good is broadband Internet access if you can't use it.

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