“It stops being the Net if a supplier of downloaded video pays to connect to a particular set of consumers who are connected to a particular cable company. It would no longer be an open information space.”
Among other things, Sir Tim said he fears a time when Internet access and all that it represents is filtered through the networks of these large telecom players, who then determine what sites and services work best and are therefore the most popular, and even co-operate with operating system makers to determine how the network functions. This would completely change the open nature of the Web, he said.
“The place you buy your shoes has been decided by the search engine, and the search engine was been decided by the browser, which has been decided by the operating system, which has been decided by the computer,” he said. “Then your choice of shoes is dictated by your choice of computer.”
Attempts to incorporate some kind of protection for net neutrality into U.S. legislation have so far had mixed results, and some of the major Internet companies are not impressed. The other Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, remains concerned about the potential for harm.
This, of course, is just the latest step in a campaign by the major telcos to
strong-arm convince Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo to pay extra for delivery of their broadband content to consumers, a campaign that got its start with comments from Ed “pay up for those pipes” Whitacre of AT&T (formerly SBC) and Bill Smith of BellSouth. Why should they have to carry all that content on their networks, the telcos complain – why should Google make money from broadband and not share some of it with the carriers whose pipes they use?
As Mike at Techdirt notes, part of the problem is that the phone companies haven’t spent the money necessary to do all the things they want to do on their networks. The telcos made all kinds of promises about upgrades they planned to make – in return for which they got various concessions from the U.S. government – and then they never followed through, as telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick writes in a new book called The $200-Billion Broadband Scandal.
The big question is: Will the U.S. government allow the telcos to get away with this move, or will they step in to enforce some form of network neutrality? There used to be a concept called the “common carrier” principle, in which telcos were required to carry any and all voice traffic — that idea seems to have gone out the window.
According to BellSouth chief technology officer Bill Smith, the company is justified in content charging companies because they use the telco’s network without paying for it. “Higher usage for broadband services drives more costs that we have to recover,” he told Marketwatch. Is this a justifiable cost-sharing exercise by a phone company, or what Russell Shaw of ZDNet calls “a shakedown?” Are BellSouth and other telco leaders — such as Ed “Google better pay up for our pipes” Whitacre of AT&T — just trying to make a living, or are they robber barons, as Jeff Jarvis calls them?
Mark Cuban, in his usual contrary fashion, says we need the telcos to do this because we are running out of bandwidth, and besides, it’s going to happen anyway. I find it hard to believe we’ve run out of bandwidth already, given the millions of miles of fiber-optic cable that Level 3 and 360networks and Global Crossing laid during the last tech bubble, but I’ll give Mark that one. What I don’t get is how the telcos keep telling everyone how great high-speed is, and charging them an arm and a leg for it (while trying to get them not to use it) and then start crying poor. Is it jealousy, as Fred Wilson says? Whatever — it’s wrong.
For more, check out a long treatise on the subject by Doc Searls, and another (shorter) one by Mitch Shapiro at IPDemocracy — who has another one here. My friend Rob Hyndman has also commented many times on this theme, including this recent post, and Om has some thoughts as well.
Jeff Pulver has come out with a couple of pointed posts on this topic, including one about neutrality in general, in which he calls on Google to shut down BellSouth in an OK Corral kind of maneuver (which my colleague Mark Evans applauds), and another responding to Mark Cuban’s post, in which he takes the billionaire to task for his views — and Mr. Cuban responds in the comments.
It may not be the aggressive gesture Jeff was hoping for, but Om Malik notes that Google has said in no uncertain terms that it has no intention of paying telcos for enhanced service. “Google is not discussing sharing of the costs of broadband networks with any carrier,” a spokesman told networkingpipeline.com
As so eloquently stated by AT&T CEO Ed “Google better pay for access to our pipes” Whitacre and BellSouth CTO Bill “pay up or watch your download crawl” Smith, telcos in the U.S. and Canada want the ability to structure their networks so that their own applications and data — streaming video to your cellphone, for example — work faster and better than others. (Om Malik notes that the FCC seems to favour the telcos).
Remember the idea of a “common carrier,” where phone companies provided networks that anyone could make use of, in return for regulated rates of return? That’s history. It’s easy to see why the telcos are making this pitch — they don’t get the nice rates of return any more, and their legacy business is being eaten away by low-cost VOIP services, so you can see why they’d want to rig their networks for their own benefit. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to.
For an eloquent explanation of why losing “network neutrality” would be bad, see Vint “father of the Internet” Cerf’s submission here. And Canadian columnist and technology-law expert Michael Geist has written a nice column on the subject.