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Across The Atlantic, Glimpse An Alternate Internet Universe


Already for many Americans, there are few options when it comes to high-speed broadband. And the reason, says Zoe Chace with our Planet Money team, goes back to a moment when the U.S. decided to go one way and the rest of the world went another.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: That moment, March 14th, 2002, a bunch of people from the Federal Communications Commission pondering an existential question. There's this brand-new cable coming into your home with the Internet on it. What is this thing?

Did you really sit around and say, like, what is this? Is this a phone? Is this a letter, like...

MICHAEL POWELL: I have to tell you, we did exactly that.

CHACE: Michael Powell was chair of the FCC back then. Now, he's head lobbyist for the cable industry. This was the problem he was facing. If this brand-new cable were like a phone, that meant lots of companies could compete to sell you Internet service over that one cable, the way that long distance carriers competed over the phone line - AT&T, MCI, Sprint. So Powell, 12 years ago, surfing the Internet, phone not phone, what?

POWELL: And it just kept saying to us this is not a telephone. This is not a telephone system.

CHACE: This Alta Vista search that I just did...

POWELL: It's just Alta Vista search I just did. It's not a phone.

CHACE: The FCC decided that cable companies would not have to share their lines. Whoever put the cable into your house, that guy would be your Internet provider - Comcast, Charter, Time Warner. The reason they did this, the FCC wanted more companies to build more pipes.

POWELL: Because if competition was just selling what we had, we were worried you'd never get more.

CHACE: The dream was that if companies didn't have access to that one cable, they'd come up with lots of other better ways to get the Internet to you. That was the dream. As everyone admits 12 years later, it hasn't happened yet. It's a huge investment and most people are stuck with just the one. Now, it's possible to see what it might've been like had we gone the other way - decided to force Internet providers to rent their pipes out to any company who wanted to sell you the Internet because that world does exist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello. This is Edinburgh.

CHACE: Hello, Scotland.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, there. Do you hear me OK?

CHACE: Around the time that Powell made his decision, the U.K. was facing a similar situation. It had one Internet provider, basically, British Telecom. It was supposed to share its phone lines with companies who wanted to sell the Internet, but BT was dragging its feet, not making its lines available. So the U.K. government called on this one man to help.

PETER BLACK: My name is Peter Black.

CHACE: Peter Black used to work for British Telecom. The government wanted him to whip BT into shape. As adjudicator - basically just chief government regulator - Peter Black followed BT around for six months, took detailed notes on how slowly they were making their lines available.

BLACK: My big breakthrough that I'd come to was a big piece of embarrassment.

CHACE: He published the results on a website after first alerting the entire U.K. press corps.

BLACK: There's a famous photograph in one - I think it was Independent or The Guardian - of Ben Verwaayen, who was the chief executive at the time, behind some jailhouse bars, saying, the adjudicator is going to lock you up. And I was the adjudicator. And Ben was so embarrassed by that he put a whole lot of new people on the project.

CHACE: Peter Black lit a fire under BT, and they opened up the lines to anyone who wanted to sell the Internet. As a result, if you call a random British person...

JOANNE LAWSON: I am Joanne Lawson.

CHACE: ...chances are she'll have lots of Internet companies to choose from.

LAWSON: Virgin Media, Plusnet - that's the one I'm with - EE, BT, TalkTalk, Sky, Primus, and John Lewis Broadband.

CHACE: Different speeds, different prices, you can even get it at the store down the street.

LAWSON: John Lewis is our premier department store. It would sell you a washing machine or a bed or clothes or also the Internet.

CHACE: This is not what you hear when you call a random American. Rachel Margolis lists off her choices.

RACHEL MARGOLIS: Time Warner Cable. I mean, they're my only option.

CHACE: Cable companies in the U.S. say the dream is still alive. There may someday be more choices here for super fast Internet - satellite, 4G, wireless, fiber optic cable. But till we get there, it's cheaper and faster, and there are more options in lots of other places in the world. Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Zoe Chace explains the mysteries of the global economy for NPR's Planet Money. As a reporter for the team, Chace knows how to find compelling stories in unlikely places, including a lollipop factory in Ohio struggling to stay open, a pasta plant in Italy where everyone calls in sick, and a recording studio in New York mixing Rihanna's next hit.