Suddenly, the TV image goes pixilated, and then dark. The phone call drops. You hear yelling from your teenagers' rooms. But that's not all.
Across town, police on the beat suddenly can't reach headquarters on their radios. In an ambulance, the EMTs are trying to call in vital signs for a patient they are transporting to the hospital, but they can't get through.
Is it an alien invasion? A convergence of planets or some other astral phenomenon? No, it's a convergence of a different sort. Turns out that tonight is also the night of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, as well as the night Coldplay releases its latest song online. And YouTube has just released embarrassing video of a major Hollywood star having a "wardrobe malfunction.'' Extremely high demand on the Internet is overwhelming available bandwidth, and regulations passed back in 2006 make it illegal for network operators to differentiate and prioritize content.
Welcome to the world of network neutrality, where all content is treated exactly the same; where telecom and cable companies are legally prohibited from giving certain types of content priority handling. A world where somebody decided that a stupid network is better than a smart network. Well, how well did that work out?
As more and more of our lives migrate to the Internet, if we want our TV viewing, phone conversations and other applications to be at least as reliable as they are now, it is critical that networks be allowed to become smarter -- to partition bandwidth and prioritize packets to make sure that different types of content get appropriate handling. The equivalent of HOV lanes (which give priority during heavy traffic) and FedEx delivery (which allows people to pay more for faster and more reliable service) must be permitted on the Internet for it to become what we all want it to be.
Maybe someday we'll have the techno-utopian world of infinite bandwidth, but the last time I checked, there isn't an infinite supply of anything. So, in a world with limited bandwidth, should traffic from an Internet-connected toaster have the same network priority handling as the VoIP traffic from police and fire departments?
Network neutrality proponents answer that question ''yes.'' But the correct answer is so obviously "no'' that there is clearly some other agenda at work.
What's really going on is that major content companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay and Amazon.com want to use the strong arm of government to lock in the certainty of their existing business models. And they've enlisted an army of anti-corporate activists to stir up a frenzy in the name of "saving the Internet.''
But government should be about fostering a dynamic and risk-taking economy, not preserving the certainty of anyone's business models. Net neutrality regulations would severely restrict broadband providers' right to enter into contracts and to try new business models while protecting the business models of Google and Ebay.
The real irony is that content companies have nothing to worry about. Telecom and cable companies will never have the leverage that content companies fear, because content is king, not pipes. It is content that customers care about, not wires. Network operators won't ever be able to use content as leverage to block or degrade the content their customers want because their customers would reject it, their competitors would pounce on it and the market won't tolerate it.
And neither will the FCC, the FTC and the Justice Department, which all have existing authority should a telco or cable company misbehave.
Smart is always better than stupid. Smart networks are better than stupid networks, and smart public policy is better than stupid public policy. And potentially harmful new regulations for a non-existent problem is stupid policy.
TOM GIOVANETTI is president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a public-policy think tank in Dallas, Texas. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.