AT&T's Net neutrality doublethink

AT&T talks the talk about Net neutrality, but don't believe it: The big carriers have a different idea

George Orwell would be proud of AT&T's latest series of ads.

The company is attempting to convince us that it favors Net neutrality and an open Internet, when in fact it is lobbying hard for the opposite result. The strategy was foreshadowed in October when Sen. John McCain, the recipient of more telco money in the last two years than anybody in the U.S. Senate, authored a bill disingenuously labeled "The Internet Freedom Act of 2009." But if McCain and AT&T were being honest, they would have called it "The Internet Robber Baron Act."

More than semantics are at stake here. The new chairman of the FCC is moving to put teeth into a series of rules that would do much to guarantee real Net neutrality. Naturally, the big carriers oppose this. But given the political climate in the country and their companies' record of alienating consumers and businesses that need an open Internet, AT&T's spinmeisters know that it can't just come out and say what it really means.

[ Follow the latest developments in Net neutrality at InfoWorld. | Paul Venezia reveals "Digital tyranny in the U.K. -- is the U.S. next?" ]

Instead, the company cleverly disguises its real intent with a campaign aimed at convincing the public that, as Orwell put it in "1984," ignorance is strength. OK, that's a bit harsh. But there is going to be a big fight about this in 2010, and whether we are IT professionals, consumers, or both, we need to know exactly what's going on.

What Net neutrality really means
Early on, the debate about Net neutrality centered on the issue of tiered or metered pricing. Carriers argued with some justification that customers who use more bandwidth -- and, thus, more network resources -- should pay accordingly. That's not too different than charging by the gallon for water service or by the kilowatt-hour for electricity.

That debate is largely over, though it's not clear which carriers will implement tiered pricing and how much it will cost consumers. (AT&T recently moved to start such tiered pricing for data services.)

The argument now is much more complex and centers on control of content and applications on both the wired and wireless Internet. If a carrier can pick and choose among different types of content and different types of applications, its competitors (and, ultimately, the users) are severely disadvantaged.

The FCC has for some time favored Net neutrality in principle, but it has never turned those principles into enforceable rules. But in October, Julius Genachowski, the new chairman of the FCC, proposed to codify the four existing principles and added two more. (Here's a complete list of the six pending rules.)

Most significantly, rule no. 5 says broadband service providers "would be required to treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner." The other new rule would make ISPs disclose relevant information concerning network management and other practices.

It's probably easier to understand what Net neutrality means by looking at its opposite. Suppose AT&T decided that customers who want to reach their Gmail accounts would get slower connection speeds than customers who were using its own U-verse service or its partner's Yahoo Mail. Or what if AT&T had a partnership with say, Amazon.com, and allowed its transactions to move faster than those on the Barnes & Noble site? Talk about anticompetitive. If rule no. 5 takes effect, those scenarios are illegal.

Two years ago, Comcast tried to throttle peer-to-peer networking traffic and backed down only when the FCC started making noises about new rules. Comcast may indeed have been experiencing network issues because of the heavy BitTorrent traffic. But instead of acting openly, it acted like a hacker, using a technique called packet forgery to slow the traffic. Such behavior would be stopped by rule No. 6.

When AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers say they want the Internet to be free and competitive, what they really want to do is maintain the status quo: They want to be free of regulation so that they can set the rules, not let you be free to do what you want. As long as Net neutrality is upheld by unenforceable "principles" instead of actual rules with consequences for violation, life is good -- for them.

At the same time and in the same misleading ads, AT&T trumpets its desire to extend broadband to everyone in the country. Sure, that sounds great, but read the fine print. AT&T is asking asking the government to define broadband as anything over 768Kbps downstream and 200Kbps upstream. That low-speed level hasn't been considered "broadband" in years. Comcast reportedly set the bar even lower, defining broadband as 256Kbps upstream or downstream. So much for VoIP, streaming video, or any new applications that may need relatively high speeds. And did I mention there would likely be a whopping subsidy to carriers that provide this crippled version of "broadband" service?

McCain's bill would stifle innovation
When the FCC was in Republican hands, McCain and friends had no need to push a legislative agenda. Now that Genachowski and other Obama appointees are in the majority, the carriers' buddies have to do something.

That something was the Internet Freedom Act McCain sponsored in the fall. The bill says the FCC "shall not propose, promulgate, or issue any regulations regarding the Internet or IP-enabled services."

Aside from the utterly misleading title of the bill, there's a rather large irony here. Conservatives generally believe, or at least claim to believe, that the market works best when competition is allowed to flourish. And they argue that government regulation will stifle innovation.

But the McCain bill would do exactly the opposite. It would give the largest players -- the biggest service providers -- an even greater advantage over new and potentially more innovative competitors. After all, if a startup faces especially high tariffs because its application is seen as competitive with that of a carrier or its partner, it's likely to fail. That sounds like the robber-baron era of the late 1800s and early 1900s to me.

By contrast, the FCC's new rules would keep the Internet open for consumers, businesses, and innovators. AT&T, Verizon, and the politicians carrying their water want to lock it up, in the name of freedom. It's not hard to see who's on the right side of this one.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so all our readers can share them; or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This article, "AT&T's Net neutrality doublethink," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Net neutrality at InfoWorld.com.

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