In the American free market, it is astounding how little choice we lowly consumers actually have with regard to services as basic as Internet access. In most cities, one conglomerate has a practical monopoly on the fastest and most reliable Net connection available: cable broadband. Time Warner Cable, which is the exclusive broadband provider in my hometown of Greensboro, NC, has announced that it will be using the region as a test market for a new plan to charge customers flat rates for high-speed bandwidth in tiers with limits of up to 40 gigabytes per month, with a fee of $1.00 for each additional gigabyte above the limit. The statistical majority of users that the company says will see lower bills does not include those of us who download music, watch streaming video, listen to Internet radio, participate in online forums, or rely on being wired at home for our jobs. People who do any of these with regularity will easily exceed 40 gigs in a week and could be charged upward of $100 per month under the new plan.

Needless to say, Time Warner’s action has touched a nerve with the local public, as reflected in the press and blogosphere. Perhaps the greatest discovery to come out of this is that the consumer has little recourse. Those who have called the City of Greensboro to complain have discovered that a 2002 FCC rule means that broadband cannot be regulated the same way as regular cable service. “There really isn’t anything we can do,” admitted a city official.

If the government has a responsibility to protect an open Internet as a public good, it also must ensure that the public can access it at little or no cost, either through providing free wireless connectivity or by regulating the market to ensure competition that drives down cost and drives up service quality. Luckily, the FCC may soon be coming to the rescue, acting on provisions in the stimulus bill. In a world where Web access is increasingly crucial to being an informed and engaged member of society, as well as to the livelihoods of many, large telecoms ought not be able to get away with monopoly control over the onramps to the information superhighway and the rates charged at its tollbooths.

-- Malcolm Kenton