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AT&T reluctantly adopts net neutrality

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The US's largest internet provider has enshrined the principle of internet neutrality in an agreement to treat all web traffic equally. The move has reignited the debate about net neutrality.

AT&T's agreement comes as part of a merger deal with Bell South Communications (SBC). The agreement was a condition of the Federal Communications Commission's approval of the $86 billion deal and reverses the position of the telco.

SBC chief executive Ed Whitacre effectively began the net neutrality controversy just over a year ago when he said that major internet companies were 'nuts' if they thought he would continue to carry their traffic for free to consumers' homes.

But now it is the merged AT&T/SBC business which has provided a model which others may have to follow in how to guarantee neutrality.

Whiteacre is now head of the merged firm and has agreed not to sell premium access to homes for a period of two years. Though there are some caveats to the commitment it could set a precedent which other firms may be encouraged, or even ordered, to follow.

"AT&T/BellSouth commits that it will maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband internet access service," said a letter to the FCC from Robert Quinn, senior vice president of AT&T's regulatory division.

"This commitment shall be satisfied by AT&T/BellSouth's agreement not to provide or to sell to internet content, application or service providers, including those affiliate with AT&T/BellSouth, any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet transmitted over AT&T/BellSouth's wireline broadband internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination," said the letter.

AT&T said that it still opposed net neutrality in principle, and there are some exceptions to the rule. It will not apply to the high speed internet television (IPTV) service planned by the company, or to other similar services that it might develop. The company is also free to change its behaviour after two years, unless a law is passed in the meantime outlawing preferential treatment of data.

Activists, though, hailed what they saw as a milestone. "AT&T capitulated to supporters of an open and neutral Internet," said Ben Scott of the SavetheInternet.com Coalition. "The agreement once and for all puts to rest the bogus argument that no one can define Net Neutrality. The FCC just did it, and the sky hasn't fallen. The conditions placed on this merger will show irrefutably that net neutrality and phone company profits are not mutually exclusive."

Whitacre had started the debate in late 2005. Alarmed at the amount of investment needed to keep applications such as video and games coming into homes at fast enough speeds, he suggested creating a separate, fast service for companies that were prepared to pay his telco for guaranteed fast delivery.

The comments caused outrage amongst internet activists who said that what made the internet unique and valuable was the fact that it was essentially free and that all information was treated equally for network transport purposes.

They said that telcos were paid by consumers to deliver all information for a monthly fee, not to set up additional toll booths for their own gain.

A law enforcing net neutrality was defeated in the US Congress last year, but the make up of Congress has changed significantly since autumn elections and legislation may be reintroduced, political observers said.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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