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Tolls may slow Web traffic

The possibility of a future two-tiered Internet threatens today's notion of free travel on the information superhighway.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 15, 2006

For now, the Internet is a superhighway open to all. Information is delivered quickly via phone lines and cable to homes and businesses worldwide. But for online businesses, the express-lane ride may be over. As the Internet matures, new bandwidth-gobbling online television channels and phone services may soon be charged to access the superhighway. That could turn the Internet of tomorrow into a toll road, with those who can't pay a premium shunted into the slow lane.

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Grass-roots consumer groups and big corporations like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google, whose businesses are based on a "free" Internet, say that ideas being floated to make producers of online content pay a premium for fast delivery could ruin the Web.

Permitting cable and phone companies to develop "capacious 'broadest-band' toll lanes for some, and narrow dirt access roads for the rest, is contrary to the design and spirit behind the Internet, as well as our national competitive interests," said Vinton Cerf, a Google vice president and an early architect of the Internet, in testimony before a Senate committee last month. "The vibrant ecosystem of innovation that lies at the heart of the Internet creates wealth and opportunity for millions of Americans. That ecosystem, based upon a neutral open network, should be nourished and promoted."

The firestorm was ignited last November when AT&T chief Edward Whitacre told BusinessWeek Online that AT&T's broadband network was not going to be exploited by Google and others without due compensation. "How do you think they're going to get to customers?" he said. "Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and wehave to have a return on it.... [F]or a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

The Internet has "morphed" into something it wasn't 10 years ago, adds AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones. It has moved away from just e-mail to video and voice. "You need to build an infrastructure to handle the traffic," she says, and that costs money. While AT&T has not introduced "two-tiered" or "premium" prices for those who send large amounts of data over the Web, it reserves the right to do so. "Companies like AT&T who are making significant investments to build a private backbone" to the Internet, she says, "should have some leeway in the services we are offering on that backbone."

Already, consumers pay different prices to receive content at different speeds, from dial-up or DSL connections from phone companies to cable modems. In theory, toll-road plans would charge those who send, or upload, large amounts of data (movies or TV shows, for example) a premium to make sure that all of the individual "packets" of information that make up the signal arrive smoothly and quickly. That's important to creating a high-quality audio-video experience for their customers. Other kinds of data, such as e-mails, where a few seconds of delay makes little difference, would travel in the "slow lane."

AT&T and Verizon are gearing up to offer TV service, so-called IPTV. Some worry that they might charge a premium to others who want to send video over their lines, or even degrade or refuse to transmit others' products.