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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surfing the Web Could Become More Expensive

NEW YORK -- Are consumers going to start having to spend a lot more to surf the web?

Phone and cable companies have stoked those fears recently by floating plans that would have Amazon, Yahoo! and other web sites paying new fees to ensure that their content will be delivered to customers faster.

This possibility has raised the prospect that consumers may end up having to pay twice for access to the Internet -- once to the phone or cable company that sells them a dial-up or broadband line, and again to Internet companies that pass along new charges for fast access to content from their sites.

Late last year, the Bells proposed to share the burden of upgrading their networks with the companies sending out that data. The plan quickly drew fire from consumer groups, technology companies and lawmakers eager to preserve open access to the Internet and fearful that the Bell companies have too much power. Those worries were highlighted Sunday when AT&T announced plans to buy BellSouth, creating a telecommunications giant with 70 million local phone customers in 22 states.

If a plan like the one the Bells are proposing were to come into effect, consumer prices might not increase immediately, consumer advocates, industry analysts and telecommunications executives say. But one way or another, consumers are likely to shell out more in the future for web content.

The reason, they say, is simple. As Internet traffic booms and competition intensifies, the phone and cable companies are spending billions of dollars to expand their networks -- and they want someone to help them foot the bill.

The government is unlikely to fork over any money to help the cable and phone companies expand their networks. So phone and cable companies are turning to a new source: web content providers. For the most part, the Internet sites now get a free ride because network operators have to transport equally all data that travels on their networks. Some content providers do buy extra servers so that consumers can zip around their sites more quickly, but they absorb that cost themselves.

The idea of the service providers is to create a system where web sites can, for a fee, bump their data into a kind of fast lane, where it will not be mixed in with everyone else's. The Bells contend that the fast lanes they are proposing will not slow down other traffic because their networks are big enough to accommodate everyone. Some critics are skeptical and say the Bells' plans to sell television routed over their networks will leave less space for other content.

"There's no limit to what they could charge for this high-speed lane and they could make the slow-speed lane as slow as they want," said Rich Tehrani, president of Technology Marketing, a media company that promotes Internet phone service.

But the phone and cable industries have powerful allies in the U.S. Congress who are already proposing legislation that would let them introduce this tiered service. If the telecommunications companies get their way, the most obvious candidates to pay for the premium service are companies that offer videos, music and other data-heavy products.