Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Regulating Internet, Hands-Off Approach Wins, So Far ; AOL Time Warner Deal Is Heating Up the Debate on What Rules, If Any,

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Regulating Internet, Hands-Off Approach Wins, So Far ; AOL Time Warner Deal Is Heating Up the Debate on What Rules, If Any,

Article excerpt

Imagine turning on your television and sampling a wide array of noncommercial cultural, educational, and entertainment programming spanning the dial. Or how about always having a choice of two, three, or even four cable companies to turn to when yours jacks up its monthly rates?

Sound improbable? Maybe. But both could have become reality if several key votes in Congress at the formative stages of both the broadcast and cable industries had gone a different way.

Now with the still-developing Internet driving what some believe is the biggest communications revolution since Gutenberg, a pitched battle is under way in Washington over the rules that will guide the future of cyberspace.

Questions range from fairly straightforward - should cable companies be required to offer consumers more than one Internet service provider - to larger ideological ones, like whether the Internet should be regulated at all.

Everyone involved recognizes the outcome of these debates will ripple well into the future. But with cyberspace still a wild frontier with its roads under construction, many are discovering the old assumptions don't always apply.

"This is, to a great extent, a whole new ballgame - we have to start again from ground zero," says Robert Thompson, professor of film and television at Syracuse University in New York.

The proposed merger between the "old media" giant Time Warner and the "new media" cyberking America Online (AOL) is bringing a new sense of urgency to the debate. Advocates of regulation point to the new company's extraordinary size and reach as a clear indication that government should be on alert to be sure the Internet remains competitive. Opponents contend it's proof the free market is working overtime to bring consumers the best possible services.

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), William Kennard, has favored a "hands-off" approach and last week's stunning merger announcement did nothing to change that. He issued no statements and his staff, when asked about it, simply pointed to a speech he made in December.

"Unless a compelling case can be made for government action - a failure of the market to maximize consumer welfare - then we should give the marketplace a chance to work," Chairman Kennard said.

But critics worry that in today's highly concentrated media marketplace, the free market could end up choking off competition. For instance, right now cable companies own the broadband wires that come into consumers' homes. Those wires are expected to be a primary pipeline for high-speed Internet access. That's what prompted phone giant AT&T to buy TCI and MediaOne, two of the largest US cable companies. And it was behind the AOL-Time-Warner deal.

Initially, AT&T said its cable customers could access only one Internet service provider, Excite@Home, in which it owned a hefty stake. …

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