You don't have to pay extra if you want your phone calls to connect right away or your electricity to kick in the moment you flip the switch.
You do have to pay extra if you want Amazon.com to ship you a package faster than normal or if you want a speedy sports car instead of a rusted clunker.
That's because the power lines and phone lines are public utilities, while the shippers and car dealers are just private businesses doing what they do best.
Now, the federal government is debating which category the Internet should fall into. In other words, should Internet service providers get to charge content providers more for faster service?
U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand say they should not. The senators last week urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify the transmission component of broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service. In effect, that would make it a public utility.
“Broadband is a more advanced technology than phone service, but in the 21st century it performs the same essential function,” the senators said in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Consumers and businesses cannot live without this vital connection to each other and to the world around them. Accordingly, it would be appropriate for the FCC to reclassify broadband to reflect the vital role the Internet plays in carrying our most important information and our greatest ideas.”
Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Jeff Merkley, D-Oreg.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Corey Booker, D-N.J.; and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also signed the letter — a politically weighty if highly partisan coalition.
The senators say the FCC currently is considering a proposal that might let broadband providers charge websites, applications and services more money for quicker delivery of their content to consumers. A service like Netflix, for instance, might have to pay for enough speed to allow Time Warner customers to watch its movies and shows.
It's a fair bet that most if not all of those new charges would get passed on to consumers just as fast as that content. In addition, the senators argue that higher fees would hurt start-ups and small businesses, blocking innovations that might drive the economy of the future.
Schumer and Gillibrand say the move the FCC is considering would essentially create “Internet fast lanes for those who can pay, leaving others stuck in traffic.”
As the senators point out, that would change the Internet we know into something new. Whether it would be something better or something worse might well depend on whether you or the company that runs the website you are using has the money to drive in the fast lane.
If you or they do, the Internet could, as service providers say, become more vibrant, more exciting and more useful.
For everyone else — well, remember those old AOL dial tones?
Jim Miller’s “Eye on Government” appears each Sunday in the Finger Lakes Times. Contact Miller at 789-3333, ext. 258, or firstname.lastname@example.org.