The aim of AT&T’s $67 billion deal is to create a network giant with nationwide reach controlling nearly half of all telephone land lines in the United States. But the real danger is the control AT&T would gain over access to high-speed Internet services.
Soon all electronic media -- telephone calls, TV, radio and the Web -- will reach your home via a broadband Internet connection. The few corporations trying to control this “pipe” – and the hundreds of billions of dollars at stake -- are racing to gobble up as many competitors as possible before consumers make the digital media shift. Verizon’s $8.5 billion purchase of MCI in January is one other episode in the merger mania that has seized the telecommunications sector.
The new AT&T -- which already includes what used to be SBC -- would create the nation’s largest high-speed Internet provider. According to company chief Ed Whitacre, this behemoth would “benefit customers through new services and expanded service capabilities” with “innovative, competitively priced products.”
These corporations have done a lousy job rolling out their services to remote communities and low-income neighborhoods they've deemed unprofitable. This is why nearly half of all Americans have just one option for high-speed Internet service or can’t get broadband at all.
In other countries, the cost of broadband has dropped dramatically as speeds and choices have increased. Nations such as South Korea, Japan, Finland and even Canada have much faster Internet connections at lower prices than what is available here. As a result, America has fallen from third to 16th place in penetration of broadband per capita.
Not only are Americans being offered limited choices at higher costs, but now the companies that provide access also want to control the content and services that are delivered to customers. Whitacre recently alarmed consumer advocates and Internet entrepreneurs alike by dismissing the principle of "network neutrality" -- a standard that ensures all users can access the online content or run the applications and devices of their choice without interference from their Internet service providers.
If Whitacre gets his way, AT&T could cut off your Internet phone unless you use their service; or force you to download MP3s from his company store by slowing access to outside music sites like ITunes. Those controlling the pipes could also charge you extra to guarantee that your email gets past their spam filters.
The network giants are trying to make your Web experience look like cable TV, where you pay for a limited selection of programs that they select, own or control. These types of package schemes would stifle the Internet’s revolutionary ability to spread new ideas, serve marginalized communities, spark business innovation and encourage democratic discourse.
A standard of nondiscrimination has been in the DNA of the Internet since its inception. The network’s only job should be to move data — not to choose which data to privilege with higher quality of service. The brilliance of the end-to-end network is that the intelligence is at the edge of the network, with you and me, and the wires in between simply pass along the information.
The AT&T merger would spread the corporate gospel of Internet discrimination into more than half of the nation's broadband markets.
Thanks to AT&T's legions of lobbyists, some predict this merger will sail through Washington. But with so much at stake, perhaps it’s time for our regulators and representatives to put away their rubber stamps and say enough is enough.
Without Internet freedom guarantees, new media will soon become ruled by the same lumbering, discriminatory corporations that dominate old media.