Politics, Technology, and Language

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Archive for December 29th, 2006

Net neutrality neutered?

Posted by metaphorical on 29 December 2006

AT&T’s $86B merger with BellSouth is done. Various alarms, being raised by Dave Burstein, Jeff Pulver, Susan Crawford, and other expert telecom observers, are sure to be drowned by the tinkling of champagne glasses on New Year’s weekend, because the merger was approved by the FCC late in the afternoon of the last business day of 2006.

The FCC approval was 4-0, one of the three Republican commissioners having recused himself. AT&T secured the two Democrat votes by issuing a letter last night promising a clutch of concessions, as detailed in most of the business press coverage, such as Bloomberg’s.

One of those concessions concerned network neutrality. But it may have contained a back door that makes it meaningless.

Net neutrality, at bottom, is the idea that broadband carriers like AT&T can’t discriminate, with respect to the network traffic they carry, between data they like and those they don’t—for example blocking packets from Vonage or Skype, or video-related services from YouTube, Akimbo, TiVo, or anyone else that compete with their own video offerings.

The back door consists of this sentence: ““This commitment also does not apply to AT&T/BellSouth’s Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service.”

Burstein may have been the first to notice the back door, as reported on Techdirt a few hours before the FCC vote. Susan Crawford, on her blog, explains it this way:

That’s AT&T’s new high-speed internet access — AT&T Yahoo! High Speed Internet U-verse Enabled. It’ll have speeds of up to 6 Mbps for downloading (not very fast — Singapore, Japan, and Korea and lots of other places have 100 Mbps and more available). It’ll use all kinds of “middleware” from Alcatel and Microsoft and other companies to prioritize and privilege particular packets. It cannot be purchased separately — “purchase of AT&T U-verse TV required.”

 If some nascent Google/YouTube application — some now-garage-bound online thingie we can’t even imagine yet — wants to reach AT&T U-verse subscribers at these high speeds, it’ll have to strike a deal. It’ll have to ask for permission.

 This means that naked, neutral, non-prioritized internet access (for AT&T customers, anyway) stays at 2001 speeds. AT&T has no incentive to upgrade its existing DSL facilities — it wants to move everyone to this new U-verse.

 As AT&T says, “the new U-verse enabled AT&T Yahoo!(R) High Speed internet builds on AT&T’s position as the nation’s leading provider of broadband DSL.” It’s not the same as the “wireline broadband Internet access service” that AT&T is willing to keep neutral.

 I applaud the consumer advocates who got AT&T to promise neutrality as to DSL — but I think they may have missed a major battleground.

If I understand Crawford, she’s positing two distinct AT&T broadband services, and saying that the AT&T concession on net neutrality pertains to only one of them. I’m not sure that’s entirely correct; I understand U-verse to be entirely a video service. But even as such, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned.

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Happy birthday

Posted by metaphorical on 29 December 2006

Happy birthday, Rachel!

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