Net neutrality: Feds try to close barn door after the horse skedaddles

Jim BartholdThere's an old idiom about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted that has some relevance in the new fast-paced world in which we live. For those unfamiliar with the concept, there once was a time when horses were all-important; allowing one to escape from the barn, and then closing the door, was the ultimate in futile stupidity.

To my way of thinking, the idiom covers how the federal government (or some might say the FCC, but that's picking nits) is treating net neutrality. The horse, in this case people paying more for premium services, has already bolted so there's no use closing the barn door.

I challenge anyone to provide me a model of anything that has ever been truly free. TV itself was one of the first models of free that wasn't free. Consumers first reared up in their stalls when they agreed to pay community antenna TV companies (CATV) for better TV pictures. They hoofed it towards the barn door when they agreed to pay even more for the "premium" programming (read that sans commercial breaks) that HBO proffered. They were out the door and rollicking by the time cable started loading up on satellite channels that differentiated programming to the point where they found themselves disadvantaged if they couldn't pay the price to get MTV or ESPN.

Today's pay TV subscriber has long escaped the barn and is not coming back.

This might be hard for some to understand but, like TV, the Internet has never been free. People were outside the barn when they first signed up with providers like AOL to get access to the World Wide Web. Even to get to that point they paid for extra phone lines. When it became apparent that dial-up was no thoroughbred, they ponied up a little more for DSL and high-speed data from cable providers. Today it's de rigueur to have a broadband connection and there are those willing to invest even more dough for ultra broadband speeds.

It's easy to concede that this shift from "free" to pay happened overnight; certainly nothing happened without the requisite grumbling. In fact, until the broadcasters transitioned to digital, millions of Americans clung to the belief that free TV would deliver more than a depressing array of game shows and reality programming so there was no reason to pay for access. The difficulties of receiving digital broadcast signals led many, if not most, Americans to finally concede the folly of depending on over-the-air transmissions for daily entertainment. Enough of the over-the-air hangers-on have now joined the cable/telco/satellite audience that the FCC seems to think it's OK to snatch over-the-air spectrum away from broadcasters and dedicate it to mobile broadband.

The reality is, there is probably enough advertising-supported Web content today to sate the average broadband user who's already paying for the broadband speeds. Those who want more--and want it delivered more efficiently--will probably grudgingly pay fees akin to what they pay for premium TV or phone features that go beyond dial tone. The precedent has been established; the horse is out of the barn; and despite some fairytale reminiscence that resonates of the Doobie Brothers wailing about "what a fool believes" the days of a free Internet are about as far gone as the days of free TV--if either ever really existed.

The FCC should understand this and concentrate on the really important issues like just making sure everyone has a fair chance to access the Internet and its wealth of goodies at a reasonable price and with reasonable speeds. Demanding private companies to offer anything more than basic "free" service is, as the old saying goes, like closing the barn door after the horse has left the premises. It is the ultimate in stupid futility.

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Digital TV leading to resurgence in over-the-air television
FCC report: strip spectrum from broadcasters to make way for wireless opportunities