Keeping Broadband Broad

The government's attempt to orchestrate a march toward universal access to high-speed Internet service sometimes takes on a Monty Python air, with contradictory orders being barked and marchers colliding.

The latest example is a bill passed by the House that would allow the regional local-phone-service giants, the so-called Baby Bells, to become much more aggressive players in the high-speed-access game.

By removing requirements that the phone companies have to lease any upgraded lines to competitors at discount prices, the bill would give the Bells an added incentive to bring broadband - the generic term for high-speed networks - to millions of additional doorsteps.

Critics of the bill see it in a quite different light - as a big step toward a duopoly, in which the only broadband players would be the phone companies, offering digital subscriber lines (DSLs) and cable operators, offering high-speed cable modems.

Other viable options include wireless broadband and satellite. Congress should be careful to consider all such options as it shapes policies that can confer competitive advantage.

The House measure will face a cool reception in the Senate, where there are fewer strong allies of the Bells. One key Senate committee chairman, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, fiercely opposes freeing the Bells and prefers to emphasize steps that could strengthen content on the Net, such as greater copyright protection for filmmakers, who've been leery to enter the new medium.

Possibilities like relatively quick downloading of movies from the Web could spark greater consumer interest in broadband service. At present, only about 10 percent of US homes have broadband, though three-quarters could buy it if they thought it were worth the current monthly price.

Universal broadband access may yet prove the economic fountainhead its boosters claim it to be. At this early stage of its development, however, a prime need is to allow full competition among all variations of the technology.

Then, as more and more people decide they want faster Internet service, they'll have a wider choice of providers and prices.

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