BROOKE GLADSTONE: We love YouTube, but its video clips don't look so hot. They're jerky, blocky and small, because the Internet connections to most American homes don't have enough power to deliver better-looking images. When it comes to the quality of Internet service, the U.S. has fallen behind at least a dozen European and Asian countries where Net connections are at least 10 times more powerful and can serve up full-screen, high-definition video. Rick Karr has been working on a PBS special about the future of the Internet that airs on Wednesday night. He found that America's bandwidth gap and the debate over network neutrality currently raging in Washington aren't just about the future of the Net, but of television as we know it.
RICK KARR: In January of 1994, then Vice-President Al Gore gave a speech in Los Angeles introducing the Clinton administration's plan for the digital future. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences co-sponsored the event. The audience included a lot of TV executives, and TV star Lily Tomlin helped Gore explain the information superhighway.
LILY TOMLIN: See if this is an accurate description. Is it kind of like billions and billions of tiny little Baco-Bits of valuable information strewn in every direction across that great salad bar in cyberspace? [LAUGHTER] Is that it?
AL GORE: That's close. That's -
LILY TOMLIN: Now, does that sound more like your local Sizzler? [LAUGHTER]
RICK KARR: Gore went on to describe a plan to connect every American to a new super-fast digital network that would deliver everything from the written word to radio and TV. The dot-commers of the day called the idea "convergence." All media would converge online because the Net treats everything, from an email to a YouTube clip, the same -- as a bunch of ones and zeroes. On a network like the one Gore envisioned, convergence could let us watch whatever we want, whenever we want. Producers could cut out the middleman at networks and distribute shows directly to viewers. Just after the vice-president's speech, the private sector took up the challenge.
BRUCE KUSHNICK: All the phone companies said, we'll step up to the plate and we'll do this wiring play.
RICK KARR: That's Bruce Kushnick, a former telephone industry analyst who co-founded watchdog group TeleTruth. He says the phone companies asked state legislatures to lift rate caps and give tax breaks in exchange for a new cutting-edge fiber optic network, providing connections 45 times more powerful than what most Americans have today -- good enough even for power-hungry high-definition television. Kushnick says lawmakers nationwide agreed.
BRUCE KUSHNICK: By the year 2006, our research shows that 86 million households should have been wired with fiber --i.e., the majority of the United States.
RICK KARR: Phone companies promised to have six million customers hooked up by this year in California, for example, and five million in New Jersey. Kushnick's colleague Tom Allibone says in the Garden State, the number they've actually built is-
TOM ALLIBONE: Zero. I mean, nobody can get 45 megabit. It doesn't exist. The only thing that comes close is in a commercial type of environment for very specialized types of applications. But there's no such thing in the residential consumer marketplace.
RICK KARR: Allibone and Kushnick say the states didn't hold the telephone companies to their promises to build the new fiber optic network. Instead, regulators let phone firms offer inferior broadband service over their existing copper wires, an improvement over dialup Internet connections, but not nearly powerful enough for high-quality TV. Today, the phone companies argue, that network is stretched to the limit, in part due to the popularity of websites like YouTube and Internet telephone services like Vonage and Skype. Pretty soon it won't be able to keep up, according to Mike McCurry, former press secretary in the Clinton White House and now a spokesman and lobbyist for a coalition of big telecom and technology firms. But, he says, his clients have a solution.
MIKE McCURRY: They, in effect, want to operate a superhighway but then build a separate premium lane next to it that they're going to charge big content providers for - ask them to spread the costs of building some of this network out among their customers.
RICK KARR: His clients no longer want to treat everything on the network the same. They want to be able to hold back an email message, for example, in order to speed along a video, as long as whoever's sending the video has paid McCurry's clients for the privilege. If the new network were to treat everything the same, YouTube and similar sites could offer high-quality video -- and eat up a lot of the network's capacity. So the phone companies say they want the right to reserve most of that capacity for their own television offerings, in other words, to get into the hundred-billion-dollar-a-year cable TV business. Customers wouldn't be able to just click on a webpage to download a TV show unless the site had paid a premium to the telephone company. For the most part, customers would get standard packages of channels, chosen by the phone company. In an interview last year, Jonathan Taplin, of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, said that's a shame.
JONATHAN TAPLIN: I don't think that the network operator, whether it's AT&T or Comcast, really should be the one choosing which services flow fast into my home or not.
RICK KARR: Taplin, who's produced films for Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, said that super-fast networks with neutrality regulations to ensure that everything's treated the same could enable a renaissance in film and TV. Viewers would have more choices than ever, everything from obscure classics on demand to current big-budget series and the works of inspired amateurs in basement studios. Network executives would lose power. Viewers would gain it.
JONATHAN TAPLIN: And to have that go backwards, back into the old days of where the cable provider was the intermediary between you and the content provider, I think, would be a big mistake.
RICK KARR: Supporters of net neutrality say Google has a great reason to step up its lobbying on Capitol Hill when Congress reconvenes after the elections and the Senate resumes its debate on neutrality. A new, faster Internet without neutrality, they say, would mean that the clips on YouTube stay jerky, blocky and small while the telephone and cable companies are in high-definition profits. For On the Media, I'm Rick Karr. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can watch Rick's piece on the future of the Net this Wednesday on most PBS stations. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER