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Net neutrality - the great debacle

Er, debate

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The issue dubbed "net neutrality" could make its final stand on the floor of the Senate this week, with provisions being tacked onto the mammoth update of the Telecommunications Bill. It's an issue bedeviled by bumper-sticker sloganeering, but the more closely one looks, the more issues it raises. Things are very definitely not as they seem.

[ For our recent articles, see How 'Saving The Net' may kill it, The New Paranoid style in American politics, and if you need a quick primer, the Farber vs Cerf "Great Debate" summarised here.There follow some opinions - solicited and reader responses - to those articles. ]

The background is that IPTV is looming, and telcos want to monetise their expensive investments in fibre by offering an IP-based alternative to cable companies, offering both movies and TV, but also high-speed internet as part of the bundle. These operators, primarily AT&T and Verizon - but it could also be your local municipality - know that bandwidth-hogging applications such as BitTorrent jeopardise the quality of voice or video.

We recently characterised the debate as one of fear against hope. On the side advocating pre-emptive legislation, there's fear that the vertical integration of the large telcos will lead to abuse detrimental to third parties. Lobbying by the internet giants such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft is behind the campaign.

At least both sides agree that the legislation is pre-emptive and prophylactic.

Against the pre-emptive legislation is the hope that existing regulatory mechanisms - from the FCC to the Anti-trust Division at the Department of Justice - will stop such abuses dead in their tracks. After the telco crowd spends billions wiring up a home, just why should a Google or Yahoo! be allowed to run its IPTV service over billion dollar fibre - isn't that a subsidy?

The weakness of this argument is that the US has a poor record legislating against anti-trust abuse. The telecoms lobby has successfully written sympathetic laws at every level of government. Only last year the FCC permitted the 'Baby Bells', or ILECs - which are both monopoly DSL wholesalers, and DSL retailers, from the obligation to share their lines when current contracts expire. It's a move that will hasten a speedy death for the independent ISP in the United States.

But at least the telcos have the technical arguments on their side. By outlawing traffic shaping and QoS agreements, most of the "net neutrality" drafts put before representatives so far would cripple the future of video and VoIP on the internet, and sentence everyone to life in the slow lane.

Reg readers welcome our coverage with some relief, and it's heartening in turn to read so many nuanced opinions.

Generally, I prefer to keep legislation out of it and, if not, generally to leave the legislation as it is, so the market has a chance to work," says internet veteran Peter Dawe, who founded the first commercial British ISP Pipex, and the first European interconnect, Linx.

The US anti-trust law seems sufficient to deal with the problem. If there is one, as the market hasn't decided yet.


That's something echoed by serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson. We asked him if he was concerned by potential telco abuse.

I'm not worried about this at all. I invite the competition. Business has always been about dominance and it should be no different on the net. Each participant is striving to dominate so they can extract profits from somewhere along the channel.

I find it ironic that the same people who discriminate between users to build their services and compete with all comers do not want others to have that same right.

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