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Critics claim that without net neutrality, the Internet will be plagued by the same problems as the cell-phone networks: an oligopoly will emerge, innovators will be edged out, and technology will stagnate.

But some experts say history offers even more compelling lessons for those envisioning an Internet where content providers can pay to get their messages to customers as fast as possible.

Transformations in the telegraph industry in the mid-19th century provide one scenario for what can happen when owners of large networks extend their influence. During the Civil War, Western Union began controlling telegraph trunk lines across the country, and, by acquiring competing companies, achieved a near-monopoly by 1866. Rivals continued to rise up – even the U.S. Post Office stepped forward, proposing to run telegraph lines to underserved communities along postal roads. But Western Union simply bought up its rivals, and manipulated prices to undercut popular and Congressional support for a postal telegraph system. While the company continued to expand its telegraph network throughout the 1870s and 1880s, it focused on serving business customers, forgoing innovations that would have made it more affordable for the press or private citizens to communicate by telegraph.

“There does seem to me to be a historical analogy” with the current telecommunications marketplace, says Paul Starr, a social historian at Princeton University, who wrote about telegraphy and other early forms of telecommunications in his 2005 book, The Creation of the Media. “In both cases, the incumbents that dominate networks have tried to exploit their existing position rather than innovating.”

The current net neutrality debate stems from a similar tension between open innovation and monopolistic control. Under a principle dating to the beginning of the Internet, all bits are created equal. Your friend’s blog is delivered to you over the same connections, and at the same speed, as the home page of the New York Times; and startups have the same ability to reach potential customers as big business.

But the companies that own the main Internet connections in the United States, including AT&T, Verizon, the other Baby Bells, and cable TV providers, want to offer businesses access to faster, private connections for a premium.

All cellular connections occur over privately owned networks, of course, so the analogy between a non-neutral Internet and the mobile-phone network is a provocative one. The comparison has drawn plenty of discussion on the Internet since July 21, when an anonymous essay attacking the telecom industry appeared on NewsForge, a site for user-contributed news. The writer used the pseudonym “James Glass” and called himself a discouraged developer of software applications for mobile phones. He argued that the cellular carriers – who control which handsets consumers can buy, what software can run on those handsets, and how data gets to them – are so protective of their networks, and impose so many arbitrary requirements on outside developers trying to make their software available to cellular subscribers, that many innovators walk away in frustration.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine Verizon treating their Internet property just like their cell phone network – short-sightedly milking it for all it’s worth, at great expense to the public, and to the future,” Glass wrote.

Mark Donovan, a senior analyst at M:Metrics, a Seattle market research firm that monitors mobile commerce, agrees. “The cable and long-distance companies would like to look a little more like mobile phone companies, in terms of their ability to control traffic on the Internet,” he says.

How would that change the way the average Web surfer experiences the Internet? Donovan gives one example: “In a world where the Internet looked like the mobile phone world, Google might be really fast on Comcast’s cable Internet service, but would no longer be a ‘premium’ experience on a network where they don’t have a commercial arrangement.”

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