Today there is much praise for YouTube, MySpace, blogs and all the other democratic digital technologies that are allowing you and me to transform media and commerce. But these infant Internet applications are at risk, thanks to the regulatory implications of "network neutrality." Proponents of this concept — including Democratic Reps. John Dingell and John Conyers, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, who have ascended to key committee chairs — are obsessed with divvying up the existing network, but oblivious to the need to build more capacity.
To understand, let’s take a step back. In 1999, Yahoo acquired Broadcast.com for $5 billion. Broadcast.com had little revenue, and although its intent was to stream sports and entertainment video to consumers over the Internet, two-thirds of its sales at the time came from hosting corporate video conferences. Yahoo absorbed the start-up — and little more was heard of Broadcast.com or Yahoo’s video ambitions.
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. . . Broadcast.com failed precisely because the FCC’s "neutral" telecom price controls and sharing mandates effectively prohibited investments in broadband networks and crashed thousands of Silicon Valley business plans and dot-com dreams. Hoping to create "competition" out of thin air, the Clinton-Gore FCC forced telecom providers to lease their wires and switches at below-market rates. By guaranteeing a negative rate of return on infrastructure investments, the FCC destroyed incentives to build new broadband networks — the kind that might have allowed Broadcast.com to flourish.
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Messrs. Lessig, Dingell and Conyers, and Google, now want to repeat all the investment-killing mistakes of the late 1990s, in the form of new legislation and FCC regulation to ensure "net neutrality." This ignores the experience of the recent past — and worse, the needs of the future.
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Without many tens of billions of dollars worth of new fiber optic networks, thousands of new business plans in communications, medicine, education, security, remote sensing, computing, the military and every mundane task that could soon move to the Internet will be frustrated. All the innovations on the edge will die. Only an explosion of risky network investment and new network technology can accommodate these millions of ideas.
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