The Internet won't flourish under regulations written for the telephone industry
by Sky Dayton
(Originally published July, 1998)
The Internet is the world's next mass medium. It will ultimately eclipse television, telephone and radio as the broadest, most powerful communications tool ever invented. The Internet has already spawned thousands of new businesses and created multibillion-dollar industries overnight. Better yet, the power of the Internet will be available to everyone on Earth.
But as the Internet becomes more mainstream, there are increasing calls for Washington to extend the regulations established to govern telephone monopolies so that they apply to the Internet as well.
Calling for Regulation
Most recently, the Federal Communications Commission came under pressure from local telephone monopolies (also called Baby Bells) to regulate voice calls made over the Internet just like regular calls made over telephone networks.
After cries of protest from the Internet community, the FCC decided against immediate regulation, but also said it would still consider regulating Internet telephone services on a "case by case basis." Such regulation, if enacted, would squash a revolution in low-cost calling before it has a chance to begin.
Arcane and outdated telephone company regulations should be kept as far away from the Internet as possible.
Packets vs. Circuits: Efficiency Drives the Internet
There is no technical or economic justification for applying telephone regulations to the Internet. For one thing, the Internet uses a fundamentally different technology than telephone companies do to transmit traffic.
On the Internet, all information travels in "packets." Transmissions, such as email messages, are broken up into discrete bundles of data, each capable of finding its way across the Internet to its final destination. These packets flow much like cars on a highway many cars traveling along in the same lane, one behind the other, toward their individual destinations.
In contrast, calls over telephone networks use individual "circuits" dedicated lines extending from one end of a phone call to the other. On the highway analogy, the telephone network requires that each car has its very own lane all the way to its destination. While this may be a commuter's dream, it's a very inefficient use of our highways!
This superior efficiency is a major reason why Internet communication is so inexpensive and, at the same time, why it threatens the 100-year-old dominance of the Bell monopolies.
Pressure from the Bells
Responding to this significant threat, the Bells have lobbied hard in Washington for Internet regulation. They have tried to pressure the FCC into regulating ISPs, such as EarthLink, just like telephone companies.
The Internet, however, is here today largely because the FCC and other government agencies have abstained from such regulatory action. They have, until now, rightly concluded that to apply telephone regulations to the Internet would be to strangle it in its infancy and deny its chance to grow.
But the FCC needs your help. They are under increasing pressure from lawmakers, who are in turn being pressured hard by the Bells, to bring the Internet under the so-called regulation of the local telephone industry.
What You Can Do
While the government has made great strides in putting its various branches on the Internet, few of our lawmakers actually use the Internet themselves. This has got to change; we can't expect our representatives to make informed decisions about a service they've never used.
Fortunately, though, most of the offices of our Representatives and Senators do have email accounts (go to http://www.house.gov for Representatives' and http://www.senate.gov for Senators' email addresses). Send them an email, and ask if they use the Internet themselves, and if not, ask them to get on it before they think of making laws to govern the Internet. Tell them you want to keep the Internet free of cumbersome regulation, especially regulation written for 100-year-old telephone networks. You might be surprised at how effective your voice (over the Internet) can be.