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.”
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.
Let’s suppose you want to put the high school football games on television for everyone in your community. You film it, and go to AT&T and say, let’s broadcast these games, it’ll be the next eight Friday nights. This sort of thing has been done as cable public-access programming for decades. AT&T has two choices.
On the regular DSL side of the house, they can help you stream it, or they can multicast it. You’ll have to step down the video, because people are probably going to watch it on their computer as a portion of their 768 Kb/s DSL service. AT&T won’t discriminate those packets as they stream across, because they promised not to.
On the other hand, AT&T can run the program through their video headend, on channel 821, in which case it’ll show up on the TV and look just as good as any NFL game (because you filmed it with the same production values as Fox Sports, didn’t you?).
Now let’s suppose it’s not just Friday night high school football, but instead it’s a new initiative by Google/YouTube. Imagine Google doing for high school football what it’s doing with digital libraries—it gives schools millions of dollars in video equipment and other computing resources; communities upload their game films, Google inserts ads, and shares revenue directly with the schools. And now AT&T says, “Okay Google, no worries, your videos can stream across the Web as they always have, and we won’t touch those packets. Too bad they’ll look so bad at low resolution and low data rates. Or you can come through the video headend on U-verse, but of course we want our share of that ad revenue. Most of it, in fact.”
If I read him correctly, Jeff Pulver shares my concerns, though he expresses it with a great deal of sympathy for the FCC, and perhaps even for AT&T.
The theoretically correct or pure answer might have been to apply Net Neutrality to the entire pipe. We, however, might have to acknowledge that, if we urge that result, we would have upset the existing cable content delivery model. If we applied a wider application of Net Neutrality, would we become enmeshed in all sorts of questions about whether existing cable/programming relationships? For example, cable guys currently have the right to discriminate against unaffiliated set top boxes. I don’t really believe that such tacit discrimination is the best answer for consumers in the long-run, but if Net Neutrality applied to cable, we would have essentially upended that rule too. Instead, the attitude of the Net Neutrality forces seems to be “why not have ‘Carterfone for the Internet’ and achieve a similar result through a less siloed model that doesn’t come with all the baggage that cable regulation includes? In the end, I think what the pro-Net Neutrality forces are trying to do with Net Neutrality is create an entirely new, Internet-ready policy environment that doesn’t get bogged down in existing silos.
As Pulver suggests, alternative schemes for a broadband service are possible. One is the Utopia network, in Utah, written about here. In it, all the bandwidth of the network (as much as 100 Mb/s and expected to grow from there) can go toward video or broadband in any ratios, and high-quality “TV channels” can be fashioned out of any programming. The key fact about Utopia is that the video content providers aren’t in charge of the network—not any part of it, let alone the better part of it.
Make no mistake. In 5 or 10 or 15 years, all television will be IP based, one way or another, just as all telephone calls will be. The question is, will all IP-based content be subject to net neutrality concessions, or just the second-tier part of a carrier’s network?