So what if they built the playground?

As a rule I generally try not to give away my opinions. Making a living as a writer these days is tough enough without giving away the wares.

On the other hand, I sometimes can't resist putting in my two cents worth (that's about all writing is worth these days, incidentally, for any of you who think there' gold in these here words). That's why I feel compelled to write something about the Justice Department and its probe--according to The Wall Street Journal--into how wireline service providers are treating over-the-top interlopers riding on their networks.

The probe is something like the American Civil War. It had to happen because there were unaddressed flaws built into the system at its foundation. Way back when T1 was the way to go--if you could afford it and generally if you were a business--and the Internet consisted of words between geeks, the cable industry unveiled the cable modem. Somewhere in some shiny lab some engineer determined that coaxial cable--and even better, the hybrid fiber/coax network cable had built to better deliver television--was a "broadband" pipe.

Blazing speeds. No dial-up buzz or per-minute costs. And hardly anything worth watching other than porn, which, like weeds in a tomato patch grows in almost any type of soil.

Eventually everyone caught on that this was good stuff and the pipes started filling with all kinds of nonsense, including video, which, not surprisingly, happened to take to broadband like reporters take to free buffets. Broadband begat YouTube and Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Hulu. Online video moved from the fringe to the mainstream. As just about everyone at the time liked to say: no matter how big the pipe, they'll find something to fill it up.

Being prescient to a painful degree, I long ago mentioned in a paid commentary that I thought perhaps cable should share its wealth a bit before the government stepped in and muddied the whole scene. I was sharply rebuked by a cable industry insider who used the analogy of a playground: cable built it and they should be the ones to use it, not the guys down the street who just happened to be walking by and wanted in.

"How would you like it if you built a playground for your kids and the government said everyone in the neighborhood should be allowed in?" the cable maven asked me.

"I wouldn't," I responded honestly. "But it's called eminent domain and it happens all the time when the government decides it's in the public good to take over private property. If cable isn't careful it's going to happen with broadband. Isn't it better to invite in the neighbors—and maybe charge a little fee at the gate—than to give the government a chance to meddle?"

To be honest, we didn't resolve the disagreement.

So now, again, the government wants the playground owners to explain why their gates aren't wide open and the playground owners are saying, in a sense, "but we built the thing for our kids."

And I'm saying--free of charge--it could have been resolved years ago. --Jim Barthold