Forget regulation--Net needs to be free

With the demise of Excite@Home, ZDNet columnist David Coursey called for the regulation of the Internet's infrastructure. John Dickinson has this to say to him in response: "Stop yer whining Coursey!"

COMMENTARY--Oh now stop it, David Coursey. Regulate the Internet, indeed! I mean sure, the failure of Excite@Home to stay in business is cause for concern in the Internet industry, and sure the failure of AT&T to buy Excite@Home is a source of embarrassment to financiers, operators, lawyers, and all concerned, and yes it wasn't nice of Excite@Home to shut down 850,000 AT&T customers with no warning just because the company's management didn't like AT&T's buyout offer.

But this stuff is normal course of business, nothing more and nothing less. The simple fact is that the Internet is still trying to find its way to an adequate broadband infrastructure that is backed by an adequate financial basis. Clearly the combination of Excite@Home and AT&T was not that.

But does this call for regulation of the Internet's infrastructure as you recommend in Tuesday's column? Hardly. First of all, what companies would be regulated? Some behemoth ISPs, such as Microsoft Network and AOL-Time Warner, some very tiny ISPs who shall rightly remain nameless, and a bunch of common carriers, such as the cable companies and the CLICs and RBOC's that provide broadband Internet access.

And what about them would be regulated? Their rates? Maybe. Their uptimes? Sure, but what does that mean? Their ability to stay in business? Doubtful if you ask PG&E or other California utilities. How about Internet content, did you want to regulate that as well?

What would regulation mean? Would it mean that a partner would be forced to pay $1.00 for a $1.00 of assets in a bankruptcy transaction? Gee, I don't know if any American business thinks that's a good idea. In fact AT&T was very generously offering something close to 40 cents on Excite's dollar, quite a bit more than the usual 5 cents or 10 cents most bankrupt companies get offered.

Would it mean that users would never be denied service? The sad truth is that without a substantial reorganization plan, Northern California was threatened with a disruption of electrical service last summer. And in the early years of both the telephone and electrical utility industries, consumers did go dark from time to time as business failures and reorganizations occurred. And, oh dear, would content be regulated to protect our tender eyes and ears from certain, er, realities?

Consumers of all sorts are eternally threatened with disruption of service in cases of bankruptcy or even in cases of business contractions or simple business changes. Have you tried to get a Lincoln or Infiniti automobile serviced lately? Not where I live because dealership failures place the nearest service depot some 45 miles away for those cars. For that matter, did you try to buy parts for that Packard your grandfather left to you? Or your Aunt Edna's Edsel? How about getting service on an out-of-production television set or VCR?

Should the Internet be any different? I'd like to say that it should be, but I really can't. For that matter, are telephone services and power utilities so well regulated that a business failure of an RBOC or power utility would protect consumers from service disruptions? I seem to remember that being a major concern at the time of the AT&T breakup, but the resulting Baby Bell companies were so large that the concern went away. But again, we did come close here in California.

David, you're a smart guy who I've always respected and admired, but I can't agree with you this time around. No, the Internet should not be regulated, and no, it would not end all service disruptions if it were. So stop whining, change the settings on your computer and go cheerfully forward to AT&T's new broadband network.

John Dickinson has worked in the computer industry for more than 30 years in positions ranging from systems analyst and software engineer to editor, writer, critic and industry analyst. His most recent engagement was at eMachines, where he managed the company's Internet and software business units.


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