Should Internet service providers (ISPs) be allowed to give faster service to certain content, in exchange for a fee? That question started the debate over network neutrality. It has no clear answer, as yet, and other questions have sprung up in the meantime. But now we have the original question in reverse – with the money flowing in the opposite direction.

An online video service called “ESPN360,” a spinoff from the ESPN cable channels, sends more than 3,500 sporting events over the Internet each year. But not to everybody. ISPs have to sign up and pay for the content. Not all do. If your ISP subscribes (or if you get Internet service on a U.S. college campus or military base), you have access to the content; otherwise, not.

Traditional pay sites, from the Oxford English Dictionary to pornography vendors, sell directly to the end user, who typically exchanges a credit card number for password-protected access. Not everyone receives the service, but everyone has the option. Not so with ESPN360. The decision as to that content rests not with the individual subscriber, but with the subscriber’s ISP.

The existence of this business model means we can no longer talk about “the Internet,” as though it were one thing. Now there are at least two Internets: the one with ESPN360, and the one without. This is not the first instance of Internet fragmentation. We wrote earlier about different ISPs carrying different components of Usenet. But all of Usenet is still available to everyone through third-party services. ESPN360 is different. Those with the wrong ISP have no way to reach it.

Back in 2005, the FCC issued a policy statement that promised consumers access to "the lawful Internet content of their choice." That worthy goal may be unenforceable as to ISP-purchased services like ESPN360. The FCC has no authority over ESPN as an Internet content provider, and it cannot force an ISP to pay money for a service it does not want.

The answer to this kind of problem is supposed to be competition. In principle, a consumer who wants ESPN360 can simply switch to an ISP that offers it. But in practice, the FCC has made that difficult to do.

In the dark ages of dial-up Internet access, the phone companies offered ISP service, but were required to open their facilities to competing ISPs. That set of rules, collectively called “Computer III,” never quite worked as intended. But even so, there were thousands of ISPs. A dissatisfied customer could move easily from one to another.

Things are different in the broadband environment, following two FCC decisions that largely ended competition among broadband ISPs. The first was a 2002 ruling that deregulated cable modem service. The second, coming a few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the first, did the same for DSL service. Cable companies and phone companies breathed a sigh of relief. They could provide broadband Internet access without having to let other ISPs use their networks.

The large majority of residential broadband customers today receive their service through either a cable company or a phone company. Thanks to the FCC deregulation decisions, these people must also take the cable company or phone company as the ISP. Few have any other choices. The high cost and relatively low speed of satellite service limits it mostly to remote areas. Fixed wireless and broadband-over-power-line have limited availability. Mobile broadband wireless is expensive and relatively slow.

Some customers live in areas with only one broadband provider. They have no choice at all. For most others, the only alternative to their present ISP is a switch from cable modem service to DSL (or fiber) from the phone company, or vice versa. But the change is rarely fast or easy. The old provider may charge early termination fees. The new provider will likely charge for its modem and for activation, and may demand a one- or two-year commitment. Waiting for the installer takes time. If the subscriber’s email address includes the name of the old provider, then changing providers turns off that address – a powerful incentive to stay put.

In short, most broadband consumers are at the mercy of their present ISP. If the ISP chooses not to provide certain content, the consumer is unable to receive it.

ESPN is a TV content provider that sells video channels to cable systems. For the company to replicate the same business model on the Internet is a natural step. But its doing so threatens the vision that has made the Internet such a strong force: all the information on the planet, all of it available to everyone. ESPN’s approach, if widely adopted, would result in many little Internets, a different one for every ISP. That might make business sense for the content providers. But it would seriously disserve everyone else.

Thanks to John Chapin for bringing this issue to my attention.