Is My Cable Modem Really a Telephone?

by on December 8, 2004

Next year, the Supreme Court will (as Reason’s Jeff Taylor puts it) “decide if your cable modem is really a telephone.” TechWeb has the story.

On the legal merits, it seems like it could easily go either way. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s hard to see how cable broadband is any different from DSL broadband. They’re technically similar and they’re marketed in identical ways; the only difference is the physical characteristics of the cable that carries the data. It’s hard to see how that’s a reasonable basis for distinguishing the two.

On the other hand, in policy terms, the people who want to impose the byzantine DSL regulations on cable have some pretty idiotic arguments:

“If the Supreme Court rules against Internet open access, cable companies will be able to block content at will for political or financial reasons, and deny the public the ability to choose among competing Internet providers,” he said. “The outcome of this case will–quite literally–determine the future of the Internet as we know it.” MAP is a public-interest telecommunications law firm.

Uh huh. If I wanted a new ISP, could switch to DSL or an analog modem tomorrow. I could cancel and get Internet access from the coffee shop down the street. In a few years, I’ll likely have the option to switch to fiber optics, wireless broadband, or satellite data services. Yet knowing all this, these guys think my cable company is going to piss me off by trying to tell me what web sites I can visit or what protocols I can use? Any company that did that would see a large segment of its customer base flee to competitors.

I’m not sure if it would be kosher for the Supreme Court to do it, but someone has got to cut both cable and DSL loose from traditional telecom regulations. Just the competition between those alone (I’d be fine with a rule that says no cable company can buy the local DSL provider and vice versa if that would make people more comfortable) will ensure there’s broadband competition in all major markets, and if anything, deregulation will increase competition by encouraging the build-out of new facilities like fiber optics. So the idea that the federal government needs to micro-manage this market to ensure competition is silly. If the Supremes won’t give us deregulation, Congress should. I certainly don’t want the FCC to start treating my cable modem like a telephone.

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