Line Is It Anyway?
By Dan Frommer
NEW YORK - Some of America's largest telecom companies are
hoping that Internet content providers would be willing to
swap their corporate cards for faster access to you.
A skirmish is brewing in Washington over control of the
Internet. Not what's on it, per se, but what might be
considered fair game for new revenue streams, which telecom
companies are hoping to tap in exchange for a priority tier
of high-speed network service.
At a private meeting in the nation's capital on Jan. 25,
representatives from some of the largest content and
application providers, cable companies and telecom titans
squared off to discuss the issue that has lately become a
hot topic among political and tech wonks alike: network
Network neutrality suggests that anyone using the Internet
would have equal access to its pipes, which the big telecom
companies -- who see a pot of gold at the end of this
rainbow -- are doing their level best to veto. They want,
effectively, uneven access for those willing to pay more.
As Congress revises its telecom laws, giants like
AT&T are looking
to fatten their bottom lines, while they spend billions to
upgrade their networks to support higher-speed data and
digital-television connections. AT&T, for one, says it will
pay some $4 billion over three years to reach half of its
customers with its digital-video network, "Project
Lightspeed." (A cynic might note that the company, fresh
from acquisition by SBC,
is also spending an estimated $800 million on its latest
publicly taken the lead in the networking sweepstakes by
suggesting the creation of a new tier of enhanced services
with fatter and quicker connections, which are tailored to
the needs of gamers, digital-media collectors or other
network "power users." Depending on how business
relationships are defined, a bandwidth-heavy content
provider like Apple
Computer could voluntarily pay the telecom
company 5 cents to 10 cents per transaction for priority
bandwidth access, presumably speeding up an iTunes
customer's video download.
"We believe that a company that is feeding video or games or
voice-over-Internet Protocol services would want their
customers to have a good experience and would be willing to
pay for that priority service," said
director of media relations for BellSouth.
Moreover, it doesn't take a math whiz with a graphing
calculator to conclude that those relationships -- even at a
nickel at a time -- could provide a windfall of new income
for the telecom companies. Some use the tollbooth analogy,
while others argue that this directly challenges the
free-market spirit of the Internet that has allowed
companies like Yahoo!
and Google to
propel themselves from humble roots to some of the world's
most recognizable brands.
"The Internet has flourished as the most revolutionary
communications medium in history, based on a model where
carriers do not interfere or choose what people do online,"
said Alan Davidson,
Washington policy counsel for Google. "Even simply picking
winners among services threatens the basic Internet model of
communications, where users get to decide which services are
the most important to them."
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of the
forthcoming book, Who
Controls the Internet?, is among those concerned
that new payment models for preferential data delivery and a
higher cost barrier for entry into the market could skew
innovation. "The Internet, by its design, was a place where
you could start a business with very little. It was
designed to be neutral and designed to make everybody
equal," Wu said. "When we're talking about a network with a
lot of inequality and disparity, that changes the conditions
of the entire sector."
For the time being, picking winners might effectively also
mean picking losers. As bandwidth is currently a finite
resource, prioritizing network packets to preferred sites
would thereby de-prioritize packets sent to others -- though
not to a degree discernible by the average user, according
to BellSouth's McCloskey.
Still, some worry that if taken to an extreme, preferential
routing may slow or block access to nonpreferred sites and
applications. "Prioritization means taking packets out of
their turn. Something gets pushed back and that is
degradation," said Paul
Misener, vice president of global public policy
However in the future, greatly increased bandwidth
availability may neutralize all such reservations.
More than two-thirds of respondents in a recent consumer
study about network neutrality said that slowing or blocking
specific applications was a concern. But the telecoms
insist that's not their mission. "We have no intention to
degrade services that people enjoy today," said
senior vice president of regulatory planning and policy for
AT&T. "There's no value in that. It's bad customer
Last Friday, Thomas Tauke,
executive vice president of public affairs, policy and
Verizon Communications, repledged the company's
commitment to an open Internet that is free of boundaries.
"Having said that, we're not sure it's a great idea to start
adopting a lot of regulation," Tauke said, citing concerns
with governmental Internet involvement in Europe and China.
"We continue to explore ways to address the issue without
getting bogged down in a substantial amount of government
The debate will undoubtedly intensify, and until Congress
takes a stand on the issue -- potentially later this year --
the winners and losers remain uncertain. There's still a
lot at stake for all parties: telecom companies, Web giants
and Internet consumers alike.