Jan 202010
 

The debate around Network Neutrality is sometimes simplified as carriers against content providers, the owners of networks against the businesses that have grown due to Internet connectivity. So it was interesting to read that Google and Verizon filed a joint submission to the FCC last week, laying out in detail how the two companies agreed on many issues regarding an “Open Internet.”

Was this done as a PR move (nothing wrong with that, of course!), or was there really something substantive here policy-wise? I took a read, and here are the interesting nuggets.

First off, it sounds really good. Apparently the two companies are of like mind on lots of important issues, or “several overarching values” as the submission states. These include:

  • Understanding that the Internet is unique and has thrived in an environment of minimal regulation
  • A person should be able to connect to any other person he or she wants to, with no central authority imposing rules
  • Public policy should provide appropriate incentives for commercial investment
  • Users should have control in how they use the Internet, and the transparency to make informed decisions
  • Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) should be established to mediate disputes
  • Communications laws and regulations should not apply to Internet applications, content or services.
  • There should be some mechanism for federal authorities to address “bad actors” (italics mine) when competition and self-regulatory efforts are unsuccessful — but only on a case-by-case basis.
  • Acknowledge that broadband network providers, in addition to offering traditional Internet services, should have the ability to offer users the choice of service options in addition to traditional Internet access services.
  • The focus of any nondiscrimination rule should be to prevent harm to users or to competition
  • Verizon and Google disagree whether mobile networks should be part of an Open Internet framework — oh well, can’t agree on everything!

It would be hard to disagree with any of the above in principle. But from a policy standpoint, trying to discern what these companies are trying to communicate, three of those “overarching values” seem most interesting to me — network management/new services, the TAGs, and the point about communications laws not applying to Internet applications or services.

The network management/new services point is critical to carriers, and Google I think is being realistic in agreeing. It’s just feasible to say a carrier can’t treat certain traffic differently, since some services demand network management to work properly. A VoIP call needs more consistent bandwidth than an email or http query, for example. Carriers would also have no incentive — beyond market competition, that is — to continue to upgrade their networks if they could not monetize that investment through new services.

TAGs are an interesting concept, and I hope they get implemented. I do think Google and Verizon are over-estimating how much agreement can be reached just by pulling together some technical experts. You can look to the wrangling within ICANN, or the disagreements between the IETF and the ITU and see the limits of this approach.

Finally, there is the innocuous line about communication laws not applying. For those not steeped in FCC vernacular, this is a huge point. Currently phone services provided via circuit-switched networks are subject to all sorts of regulations built up over decades. One the other hand, phone service provided via digital networks — think Vonage, or a cable company — is classified as an “information service,” and not subject to all that regulation.

So, what Verizon and Google are saying is sure, we’ll submit this to you FCC, but guess what? You don’t have any authority in this area to regulate the Internet. Pretty cheeky of them, huh!? Based on an interview given by Chairman Genachowski (post on that here), I don’t think he agrees.

If you’ve reached the end of this post and are still interested, Drew Clark at Broadbandcensus.com recently launched a new publication tracking these issues in great detail. It’s called BroadbandBreakfast.com, and here’s their story on this submission.

This country truly is at a communications crossroad, moving into an all IP future. There is nothing “wrong” with our  old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), which was once the envy of the world —  and still delivers better phone service than many countries enjoy. But the future is in the advanced services carried over end-to-end IP networks, and the FCC needs to balance the needs of the providers and the needs of users. If every interested party ends up a little unhappy, then maybe that would indicate such a balance. The next chapter is the FCC’s national broadband plan, due in March. Stay tuned!

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