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Cable Needs To Join a New Gang

It is not your father’s cable business anymore. It has evolved into a major force in original television programming and now an important provider of high-speed Internet access and online services. For better or worse, cable is no longer as isolated as it once was from the wider world of telecommunications.

With the growing importance of the Internet as a telecommunications platform, however, the regulatory landscape for telecommunications in general, and cable in particular, is changing beyond all recognition.

In addition to high-speed Internet access and e-mail, most cable operators now offer their customers a package of online services, including Website hosting, instant messaging, Web search, streaming audio and video, and telephone service. Cable operators are forced to come to grips with a host of new regulatory threats they never had to consider when their business was strictly about television. That’s because cable companies are starting to look a lot like Internet and e-commerce companies.

When members of the NetChoice coalition show up to plead their case for the Internet and e-commerce in the corridors of Congress and in state capitols, they are bumping into members of cable associations who are dealing with the same issues.

Internet and e-commerce companies should be natural allies of cable operators on a host of emerging regulatory issues, ranging from violent programming, online safety and privacy to spyware, taxation, trademarks and content liability. We can’t afford to let regulators divide and conquer while we focus more on what makes us different than on what makes us the same.

Regulations are a lot like snowflakes: small, unique and hardly threatening by themselves. But, like snowflakes, if regulations are allowed to accumulate, they can make a big mess for everyone.

Unless cable operators start thinking less like broadcasters and more like Internet service providers and e-commerce companies, they run serious risks from local and federal regulators, even if those officials don’t really understand the unintended consequences sure to follow. Unfortunately, it is often a very short step from a few little snowflakes to a devastating blizzard.