Internet and broadband: the difference between cake and icing

Jim BartholdThere's a misunderstanding about how the Internet works and what its end value proposition is for the American public. The misunderstanding is driven by how home and office, work and entertainment are blending and blurring for Americans. It's also a misunderstanding driven by content on the Internet itself which so effectively mixes fact with fiction that the lines are blurred for any but the most discerning participant.

After all, the Internet brings us access to a comment from U2 manager Paul McGuinness who, instead of sparking his clients' creative juices, determined that the only reason that people subscribe to broadband services is to share music and video, supporting comments from his lead singer Bono who called music piracy "reverse Robin Hood" madness that benefits "rich service providers whose swollen profits perfectly mirror the lost receipts of the music business."

You don't necessarily need broadband to read that comment--but it doesn't hurt. And it is indicative of the line blurring that makes a net neutrality proposal so difficult. Where do the baseline benefits of broadband access end and where do the entertainment benefits begin? Once those boundaries are established, who should pay for the higher benefits--the users, the service providers or the taxpayers?

Net neutralityThe blurring, caused no doubt by the service providers themselves, is difficult to pull apart. Because a smartphone can receive email, it's logical to think it can be part of a social network. Because it can access the Internet, it's just as logical to think one of its applications should be live television--or some form of video. But social networking and video are peripherals that, in the end, are like cable TV pay channels. You can get quite good television without paying extra for HBO or Showtime or Starz. The TV package is the cake; the pay channels are the icing.

The same can be said of the Internet as a whole and broadband access to its wealth. At its foundation, it is the greatest font of information--and unfortunately misinformation (see above comments from U2 manager)--in the history of mankind. If it can't be found on the Internet, it probably didn't happen or didn't matter.

That's the value of the Internet. Broadband's value is to bring that font of information to the user at speeds that will sate even the most attention-deprived 21st Century youngster. Accessing that huge library in the cloud, everyone would probably agree, is greatly enhanced by broadband; giving everyone access to broadband to do that, via some form of net neutrality is not only a good idea, it's the best idea. There is no reason why every American shouldn't have instant availability to the Internet's reference material in the same way any American can get a library card.

The problem is (and the service and content providers are to blame for this, make no mistake about it) the Internet has been bastardized into something it was never meant to be. It's become entertainment: a movie theater and TV channel; a shopping mall and a comedy store; a clubhouse and a casino. Just because it is all those things doesn't mean the American public is entitled to have access. There is no guaranteed public right to enter an Internet casino or watch TV on your PC or phone or even shop for the latest Cleveland irons at The Golf Warehouse. Those are icing on the Internet cake just as the ability to buy and own a book is different than borrowing that tome from the library. You can get instant access with your bucks at Barnes & Noble; sometimes you have to wait in line for the previous borrower to bring it back to your hometown library.

It seems sensible that service providers and content owners would charge more for faster access to their wares if they think the market will bear the price. As long as those wares are icing on the cake, not the cake itself, there's every expectation that the public should be paying more for the treat.