Net Neutrality Round-Up

by Bruce Stewart

There's been a lot of talk recently about creating a tiered or metered Internet, which is being pushed for by the telcos and cable providers. The access providers want the ability to segment and prioritize Internet traffic so they can both give higer priority to their own services and charge others for a higher class of service. Everyone seems to think this is a pretty bad idea except the telco and cable execs, and now possibly the FCC Chairman. The big online content and application providers are pushing instead for a formal recoginition of Net Neutrality, which would forbid these kind of tiering practices.

The Washington Post reported back in the beginning of December that BellSouth CTO William L. Smith told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be, for example, able to charge Yahoo for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than Google. Smith made comparisons to first class vs. coach airline tickets and ground vs. express package delivery, and wondered why he shouldn't be able to offer similar tiered service options.

Now the Boston Globe weighs in with a report that AT&T and BellSouth are agressively lobbying congress for just this sort of plan to be included in next year's telecom legislation overhaul, and the issue is largely about the telcos being able to gurantee a quality of service sufficient for IPTV. Their own IPTV anyway, as the skeptics see a scenario unfolding where the access providers don't allow other content providers to have the same level of quality as their own offerings.

The Age is also covering the issue, noting that to some companies the telcos use of terms like "priotization" and "quality of service" suggest more sinister intentions. "If a company talks about quality of service, it could be code for discrimination among sources of content," said Paul Misener, vice president of public policy for Amazon.com.

This is shaping up as a battle between the Internet service providers and the large content and application providers. But it's not just Google, Yahoo, Skype and their brethren that are concerned about having to pay a toll to the carriers to guarantee a high quality of service, the little guys should be worried too. It's hard to imagine that any kind of tiered or metered net traffic plan could be good for innovation, but it's easy to imagine how such a plan could give additional advantage to the large entrenched players. At least one influential congressman is skeptical of the telco plan though, as the Globe reports that Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the ranking member on the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, stated ''I don't understand why we would tinker with the model that has been so wildly successful."

I think the battle is just beginning and it's not just about IPTV. VoIP is a key factor here, the telcos see their business models being shattered and they'd love nothing more than the chance to "prioritize" some of these services out of existence. And they very well may have the upper hand at this point, as recent comments by FCC Chairman Martin about taxing VoIP and not seeing a need for net neutrality rules certainly make it sound like he's already in their pocket. Another disturbing factor pointed out by Catherine Yang in BusinessWeek is that the telcos have vastly more experience lobbying in D.C. and wielding influence than the relatively new Internet companies, after all they've been buying favors and politicians for decades. Compare that to the fact that Google has a single lobbyist on the payroll, and he was just hired this year.

Clay Shirky sums up the telco perspecitve in his inimitable way over on boingboing:


"We like everything about the internet, except the way it keeps us from locking out the competition, so we want something just like the net, except less useful to the user, but with more pricing power for us."