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TheStreet Open House

John Malone Dreams of an Internet Monopoly

Stocks in this article: LMCA NFLX TWC CHTR CMCSA GOOG

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The dream of Internet monopoly lives on.

According to Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, John Malone is trying to roll up the cable business because he thinks he can force through monopoly prices on both sides of any Internet transaction.

The idea is this: Cable offers more bits than any telephone wire and as the cost of running new wires and trucks keeps going up, that's not going to change. Thus, as consumers switch from buying cable television services to Internet subscriptions, the cable system still has the advantage. It can charge what it wants for those bits, and charge the people on the other side, like Netflix (NFLX), for reaching "its" customers.

Thus Malone's Liberty Media (LMCA - Get Report) is eyeing all the other big cable companies, starting with Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Charter Communications (CHTR), aiming to build a huge Comcast (CMCSA)-sized footprint that can dominate the delivery of Internet services far into the future.

It's a great dream. I've been hearing variations of it for 30 years. In the 1980s and 1990s I heard it from telcos, which thought they had a monopoly. In the last decade I heard it from cellular companies, who thought they had a monopoly. Now cable.

My favorite version of this dream was dreamt by Enron in the late 1990s. Enron built a communications market just as it built markets in energy, and the idea was that if it could control access to all the Internet's major pipelines of data, it could do just what it was doing to California with electricity, squeeze everybody. Trouble is, as I later wrote in a self-published book about technology history, most recently offered as "Moore's Lore", Enron had a cat problem.

You can't get two cats, sell a litter of kittens, and then capitalize those cats based on all the kittens they and their descendants will later supply. Cats are like widgets, those imagined items you read about in economics. They have infinite utility but no economic value.

The same is true of bits. Thanks to Wide Division Muliplexing (WDM), optical cables could soon transmit not just streams of white light, but separate streams of light in all the colors of the rainbow, even colors that can't be seen by the human eye. By changing the electronics at either end of a link, a fiber cable could have its capacity increased many times over.

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