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Will the Internet Survive Washington?

Stocks in this article: CMCSA T VZ GOOG

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Through the first nine months of the year, the company with the biggest individual lobbying budget has been Comcast (CMCSA), spending almost $14 million to influence politicians, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks political spending.

The trade group of which it's a member, the National Cable Television Association, has spent over $13 million. Between them, AT&T  (T) and Verizon  (VZ) spent another $23 million.

For the third quarter of 2013, the Cellular Telecom & Internet Association increased its lobbying budget 66%, quarter-to-quarter. The former head of that group, Tom Wheeler, was nominated to head the Federal Communications Commission in April and was recently confirmed.

Why are carriers spending all this money and gaining all this influence? Critics say it's to kill the Internet. They seem to be succeeding.

In the wireless Internet there's no single service charge. You pay for bits. They may be millions or billions of bits but they add up. Start watching TV, or videoconferencing, on your iPhone and you can blow through those bits in no time.

The reason is that wireless is new, and wireless infrastructure costs money. Wireless carriers say they need the extra money to pay for spectrum and regular technology upgrades.

Cable now wants to rush through the door wireless cracked open. The aim is to make the Internet into something more like cable television, where carriers decide what you can watch and get to either charge programmers for carriage -- or pay them for it.

Wheeler's predecessor, Julius Genachowski, approved regulations in 2010 creating a "non-discrimination" principle for Internet carriers commonly called net neutrality. In the next few months another set of politicians -- the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit -- look set to strike that principle down.

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