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Consumers use the Internet to learn, communicate, shop and to be entertained.  Cable is the most popular, widely-available way to get high-speed Internet service.  If cable companies continue to dominate the market and exclude competitiors than prices for this service will continue to rise.

Internet Diversity, Let the User Choose

While there are some important technological differences, the Internet acts a lot like our telephone network.  If you want to attach a fax machine to your telephone, you do not have to ask for permission and the phone company cannot add a special surcharge to your bill -- they only provide the connection.  Similarly, with the Internet, if you want run a certain web browser, your Internet provider does not force you to use its web browser. 

Those open features about our telephone network are protected in law and regulation.  But those same protections don't exist for cable Internet.  Cable companies, which provide two-thirds of residential broadband connections, have the right to prevent you from using the computer or router of your choice. 

They can also limit which web sites you visit. This severely restricts consumer autonomy and is particularly dangerous in areas where the telephone company does not provide high-speed service and cable is the only consumer broadband choice. And it leads to higher prices and an unfair limitation on choices. The Center for Digital Democracy lists in what ways an open Internet might be closed if big gatekeepers have their way.

Few Choices

Cable networks were built without the same rules that applied to phone companies.  These rules promote open networks and competition.  That very competition exists within DSL, the technology most phone companies use to deliver high-speed Internet access.  Most residents of urban areas and near-suburbs can choose between DSL and cable modems, but owing to technological constraints, many only can get one service or the other.  The federal government's investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, has reported that broadband prices have remained relatively high (PDF), making it hard for many Americans to purchase high speed services at home.

Limited Competition for Some

When AOL and Time Warner merged, consumer advocates fought for, and won, open access for cable modem services.  That means you can select from a few different Internet Service Providers (ISPs) of fast cable modem access using the same cable TV wire that Time Warner's Roadrunner service uses.  For a more detailed explanation of open access, read Open Access and Content within's Internet and Broadband section.  This makes cable modems in those markets a lot like DSL, or dial-up Internet service providers -- you have the choice among several different providers, which lowers rates and improves service.  This requirement for "open access" on runs through 2005, when it will expire.

Other cable companies, including Comcast, made public promises and commitments to Congress and the FCC that they would allow open access for Internet Service Providers on their systems, but in practice have not followed through on this pledge.  Competition for Internet access over Comcast's network exists in only a handful of locations in four states.

Restricting Customer's Access

Cable providers can, and are, building networks that can restrict what consumers can do on the Internet.

Comcast, the largest cable company and biggest seller of cable modem service,at one point blocked their residential customers from running Virtual Private Networks (VPN), a technology that allows for secure connections between computers over the Internet.  Comcast claimed VPNs had only business uses and that consumers who used VPNs were likely to use more resources than other consumers.  Affected consumers, however, complained that they had non-commercial reasons for running a VPN.  Because of the outcry, Comcast now allows VPNs.

But Comcast still has an Acceptable Use Policy that still prohibits use of a home connection "for any business enterprise or purpose."  Comcast could one day decide to prevent you from selling antiques at an online auction or even working from home. The Center for Digital Democracy says these roadblocks are unfair for consumers and has a list of principles every broadband network -- cable or DSL -- should follow.

In the Courts: Threats to Open Access and Competition

When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created its policy treating the Internet over telephone wires differently from Internet over cable TV wires, smaller and independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs), along with consumer advocates, took them to court. 

The FCC and Department of Justice, along with cable and telephone companies, lost an early round and appealed NCTA v. Brand X to the Supreme Court. 

Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America have declared, "Consumers should be allowed to enjoy the increased choice and lower prices that come with a more competitive broadband market, as they do in the traditional 'dial up' Internet market."

You can read the CU and CFA press release issued when the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, and read the brief (PDF) CU and CFA filed in the Supreme Court with California Public Utilities Commission, the Vermont Service Board and the Vermont Department of Public Service.

The Supreme Court is taking this case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the states, consumer groups and Internet providers in favor of competition (PDF). They decided that denying consumers’ access to competitive Internet providers was a violation of federal law.  Media Access Project filed a brief (PDF) in that case on behalf of Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Phone Companies Want Same Options

Phone companies are now arguing for a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act that would deregulate them and allow them the same ability as cable operators to deny consumers the right to access other services, applications, content or equipment from unaffiliated companies. The results could be disastrous on all fronts. The solution is not to loosen regulations on phone companies, but rather to ensure that cable companies at least meet the standards applied to telephone companies today.  

With even less competition, prices would likely rise, and quality-of-service might suffer. Learn more about this and other Internet-related issues in the Internet and Broadband section and other Cable issues inside this section.