June 20, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The Net represents an alternative kind of medium where diversity reigns and the whole public can participate (at least in theory). Now that statistics show a decrease in TV watching in favor of Internet surfing, the two pillars of the communications infrastructure are beginning to see each other as competitors.

The best of all possible worlds would see a unification of the broadcast media and open digital networks, each offering what it can do best. But in an alternative scenario, the broadcasters could use their tremendous financial weight to drive out—or in a term loved by the academics, “marginalize”—the more open medium.

Some technical developments show signs of a promising collaboration. When digital TVs appear, broadcasters will be able to add electronic glosses to their broadcasts, such as pointers to Web sites for related information. Digital audio broadcasting could similarly extend the power of radio.

Meanwhile, “push” products like Pointcast (the first such product, now allied with Microsoft) and Netcaster (from Netscape) let World Wide Web users passively receive material chosen by a broadcaster.

Some open-system enthusiasts worry that the new Web push will simply push alternative viewpoints off the Internet. They fear the corruption of Web audiences through flashy glitz. But the joy of the Internet is that push media can coexist with traditional sites that users call up explicitly. What’s wrong with a bit of flashy glitz? Was not Dickens sometimes sensationalistic? Where would opera be, from Monteverdi on, were it not for the extravagant effects from which the word “melodrama” derives?

The greater threat is that broadcasters will adopt new digital distribution technology without granting access to the wide diversity of small voices that currently thrive on the Internet. They could adopt the external forms promoted by the Internet, while maintaining careful control behind the scenes. For instance, anarchic newsgroups could be replaced with monitored forums, while community networks could be mimicked by commercial sites that allow a small area for information from Town Hall. These controlled services, like Time Warner’s Road Runner, are already appearing.

With this perspective, the growing number of mergers creating communications mega-conglomerates are cause for concern. Time Warner (itself, of course, the result of the merger of Time-Life and Warner Bros.) joins with Turner Broadcasting and CNN; SBC merges with Pacific Telecom and now perhaps with its old “parent,” AT&T; NYNEX merges with Bell Atlantic; GTE buys BBN (a major Internet provider); MCI is taken over by British Telecom; Microsoft invests in Comcast.

Deregulators claim that competition will increase as companies enter new markets. But ironically, in order to build up enough capital and enough of a potential customer base to support a move into a new market, companies need to merge or form joint ventures.

Mergers have a special impact on the quality of public life when they’re in communications media. Contrast them with the proposed combination of Staples and Office Depot or of Boeing and McConnell-Douglas: whatever their impact on prices and competition, they will not prevent people from buying paper and writing whatever they want on it, or of flying wherever the airlines will take them. A merger between two communications companies diminishes the pool of people who ultimately get to decide what users see.

Diversity often nestles beneath unsuspected foliage. In a recent court case, for instance, cable companies were forced to carry local broadcast stations. While seemingly just a squabble between two kinds of TV companies, this case actually helped to preserve a bit of diversity. Local stations often carry material for special communities, such as Spanish-language programs. Standard cable fair is more likely to provide an endless run of mass-entertainment shows. Thus, while the ruling benefits mainly the broadcasters, communities also have a stake in it.

Large companies may be efficient and ultimately lower consumer costs, so long as a monopoly is not allowed to form. But what we need is a strict separation between carrier and content. The company providing the wire should be like a “common carrier” in other industries, a term goes that back to the early railroads, which lawmakers forced to take cargo from all customers without favoritism. Telephone companies are common carriers, but in that industry the term is loaded with a lot of additional regulatory requirements.

Carrier neutrality requires governments to refrain from redefining the role of providers, as the European Parliament did on April 24 in a resolution on “illegal or harmful content,” where it called on Internet service providers “to scrutinize and maintain the quality of the information content of their systems.”

Finally, we have to keep costs for providing content as low as a PC and an Internet connection are today, so that there are low barriers to entry for anyone wanting to provide content.

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