"Moyers on America: The Net at Risk"
10 p.m. Wednesday
KQED-Channel 9

THE PREMISE of veteran newsman Bill Moyers' latest exploration sounded intriguing.

Exactly who owns the Internet, and just how long is it going to take before robber barons take over this latest frontier? While the documentary falls far short of answering any real questions — and in fact goes off on a tangent about radio stations that should have been a supporting argument instead of veering off into an entirely new program — it does bring up some concerns.

The United States has been falling further and further behind other countries when it comes to providing an infrastructure supporting high-speed Internet access. Those higher speeds don't just translate into being able to play bigger and better games. It could mean the difference between working at home or clogging up the highways on your way to the office. It could mean easier access to education. And it could mean that you might start using a computer full time as your television — something that has been hovering around for years.

But phone and cable companies have lagged in getting fiber optics to replace the old copper wiring. This has led to some communities installing their own fiber optics system — and to a very angry phone lobby.

Last year, the FCC eliminated rules allowing every person and every company equal access to the Internet.


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Big corporations want to turn the Internet into a toll highway where the companies with the most money can pay for the faster access.

Put in simpler terms, would you go to Yahoo or Google if one was significantly slower to download than the other? And what would that do for small bloggers who wouldn't have the funds to keep up with the big guys? Right now, everyone is allowed on the information highway and can go the same speed limit regardless of whether you are driving a Lexus or a Kia. With this proposed legislation, you'd have to slam that Kia into the slow lane and let the Lexus move at the max.

The deregulation of radio meant that a few corporations took hold of the industry. The result is McRadio with fewer independent voices. Moyers' program says the same thing could happen with the Internet.

What really hit home to me about the power of the Internet wasn't this documentary, or even the obvious things happening in the newspaper and television industries that have traditional media trying to take full advantage of the Internet.

It was another PBS documentary that was made last year called "Country Boys," which took a revealing look into the lives of two young men living in Appalachia, one of the most impoverished places in America.

And they had access to the Internet. So when it came to such silly things as current pop culture, they could be on a level playing field with their teen counterparts in New York or San Francisco. They were also up with the latest news and information going on in any part of the world.

Just a little more than a decade ago, they would have led lives of isolation. The Web has opened up a whole new world to people who don't have the Internet at home. They can go to the local library or their schools and instantly get plugged into the world.

And you just know the big corporations can hardly wait to cash in on that.

Small but mighty YouTube has been sold to Google for more than a billion dollars in stock. This is a company that makes almost no money but is known worldwide as a spot where anybody can post any silly video they want.

Or aspiring filmmakers can grab the spotlight for such fictional creatures as Lonelygirl15 or established TV producers like Neil Goldman and Bill Lawrence ("Scrubs") can get a second chance on a failed comedy pilot like "Nobody's Watching."

Even last July, Goldman believed the just-recently unmasked Lonelygirl15 was probably being produced by professionals.

"I don't know who is doing it," he said of Lonelygirl15. "But you can tell it's professional. A lot of people are seeing YouTube as a way of bypassing the system."

But as Lawrence pointed out, the Web site still wasn't making any money although others were profiting by it. 

"How do you make money on a site like that? People don't want commercial interference. They want to think that it's all free and that they can control what's on there," Lawrence said. "The minute you turn it into something commercial, people will move on to the next YouTube."

Which brings us back to the point Moyers tries to make at the end of his documentary: Unless the public is diligent, the same thing that happened to radio will happen to the Web.

Radio stations used to be largely independent, with local DJs and owners deciding what was broadcast.

"The thing about the Internet is that we don't always know what's going to come next. Who would have predicted blogs? Who would have predicted that YouTube would take off? Who would have expected that Google would be the dominant search engine 10 years ago?" says Timothy Wu, who teaches technology law at Columbia University, in the documentary. "Nobody knew. One of the reasons all these things keep showing up is because the whole world has a chance to show up and try and create new application."

Unless, of course, companies make it too expensive to do so.

For more information on this issue, go to http://www.pbs.org/moyers.

Contact Susan Young at (925) 416-4820, send a letter to 4770 Willow Road, Pleasanton CA 94588 or e-mail syoung@angnewspapers.com. To discuss the end of "Project Runway," what's up with "Lost" or anything else TV related, go to the blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/unscripted.