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September 13 2010

The distinctions and controversies of net neutrality

Network neutrality draws the kind of zealous attention that activists
like me have been hoping for years we'd get for Internet policy. I
don't think any cyber-issue has ever excited as much interest among
the general public. Nor, unfortunately, has any been described in so
many confusing and inconsistent ways.

My latest policy foray has been a small attempt to fix some of that.
I'm inviting everyone with an interest in network neutrality to view
and edit a wiki at the O'Reilly Commons site: Network Neutrality: Distinctions and Controversies.

Check the table of contents to get a sense of why polemics over
"network neutrality" get so tangled up. The term can mean at least
half a dozen different things, and there is just as much variety in
the practices that it's supposed to stop. So far as I know, this wiki
is the first disciplined attempt to distinguish the various threads.

I started the wiki because I think we need it. Just over the past few
weeks we've been treated to news coverage of href="">a
joint proposal from Google and Verizon, which I found href="">muddled
in ways that show why we need a finer understanding of the many topics
involved. The FCC has released a href="">request
for comments that shows they're trying to hone in on the
distinctions. And a recent href="">article
where I made an initial stab at dissecting the arguments was well
received and summarized in href="">Forbes

The next step is up to you. The wiki just digs down one or two levels,
and can benefit from lots of alternative viewpoints. It should also
have more references. The href="">license
on the wiki is pretty permissive about copying and reuse, and I'll
be happy to donate my contributions to any other worthy project. I ask
you to help me moderate it to cut down on the all-too-common
rhetorical tricks that muddy the issues instead of delineating them. I
know that many philosophical positions and intriguing proposals are
hard to fit within the existing format of the wiki, and I think those
positions and proposals need to be outlined elsewhere. Let's try to
make the wiki rich but brief.


August 11 2010

What I get and don't get about the Google/Verizon proposal

Nobody knew for a long time what Google and Verizon were cooking up on
the network neutrality front, and after the release of their brief,
two-page roadmap (posted href="">On
Scribd as a PDF, among other places) nobody still knows. All the
usual Internet observers have had their say, and in general the
assessment is negative.

My first reaction was to ignore the whole thing, mainly because the
language of the agreement didn't match any Internet activity I could
recognize. Some of the false notes struck:

  • The Consumer Protections section keeps using the term "lawful" as if
    there was a regulatory regime on the Internet. Not even the people
    regularly accused of trying to extend government control over the
    Internet (ICANN, WSIS, and the ITU) believe they can define what's
    lawful and make people stick to it.

    If I can send and receive only lawful content, who do Google and
    Verizon think can stop me from exchanging child pornography or
    instructions to blow up buildings? What, in turn, distinguishes lawful
    applications and services from unlawful ones (outside of Saudi Arabia
    and the United Arab Emirates)?

    Deduction: This passage represents no meaningful or enforceable rules,
    but is thrown in to make regulators feel there's a policy where in
    fact there is none.

  • The Transparency section strews around nice, general statements no one
    could complain about--don't we all want our services to tell us what
    they're doing?--but the admonitions are too general to interpret or

    For instance, Apple is adamant about its right to determine what apps
    are available to iPhone and iPad buyers. Is that transparency?
    Apparently not, because every Apple developer gnaws his fingernails
    waiting to hear whether and when his app will be accepted into the App
    Store. But I don't see language in the Google/Verizon transparency
    section that covers the App Store at all. They might well say it's not
    networking issue.

    Fine, let's turn to networking. The carriers maintain that they need
    flexibility and a certain degree of secrecy to combat abuses such as
    spam; see for instance my blog href="">Consider
    the economics in network neutrality. Squaring this complex
    issue--which is covered by the Google/Verizon in the next item on
    Network Management--with transparency is a dilemma.

    Deduction: we can all say we're transparent and feel good, but life is
    too complex for authorities to be totally transparent about what
    they're transparent about.

  • The worst passage in my view is the one in the Regulatory Authority
    section assigning authority to the FCC for "broadband." That
    ill-defined term, used far too much in Washington, tends to appear in
    the context of universal service. One can regulate broadband by such
    things as providing incentives to build more networks, but the
    Regulatory Authority section sidesteps the more basic questions of who
    gets to regulate the building, interconnecting, and routing through

    Deduction: Google and Verizon put this in to encourage the government
    to continue pouring money into the current telcos and cable companies
    so they can build more high-speed networks, but its effect on
    regulation is nil.

Not too inspiring on first impression, but because so many other
people raised such a brouhaha over the Google/Verizon announcement, I
decided to think about it a bit more. And I actually ended up feeling
good about one aspect. The proposal is really a big concession to the
network neutrality advocates. I had been feeling sour about proposals
for network neutrality because, as nice as they sound in the abstract,
the devil is in the details. Network management for spam and other
attacks provides one example.

But the Google/Verizon announcement explicitly denounces
discrimination and mandates adherence to Internet standards. (Of
course, some Internet standards govern discrimination.) It seems to me
that, after this announcement, no network provider can weep and wring
its hands and claim that it would be unable to do business on a
non-discriminatory basis. And network neutrality advocates can cite
this document for support.

But as others have pointed out, the concession granted in the
"Non-Discrimination Requirement" section is ripped away by the
"Additional Online Services" section to "traffic prioritization." This
makes it clear that the "services" offered in that section reach deep
into the network infrastructure where they can conflict directly with
public Internet service. Unless someone acknowledges the contradiction
between the two sections and resolves it in a logical manner, this
document becomes effectively unusable.

What about the other pesky little exemption in the proposal--wireless
networks? Certainly, a lot of computing is moving to mobile devices.
But wireless networks really are special. Not only are they hampered
by real limits on traffic--the networks being shared and having
limited spectrum--but users have limited tolerance for unwanted
content and for fidgeting around with their devices. They don't want
to perform sophisticated control over transmission over content; they
need someone to do it for them.

Anyway, fiber is always going to provide higher bandwidth than
wireless spectrum. So I don't believe wireless will become
dominant. It will be a extremely valuable companion to us as we walk
through the day, saving data about ourselves and getting information
about our environment, but plenty of serious work will go on over the
open Internet.

So in short, I disdain the Google/Verizon agreement from an editor's
point of view but don't mind it as a user. In general, I have nothing
against parties in a dispute (here, the telephone companies who want
to shape traffic and the Internet sites who don't want them to)
conducting talks to break down rigid policy positions and arrive at
compromises. The Google/Verizon talks are fraught with implications,
of course, because Google is a wireless provider and Verizon
distributes lots of phones with Google's software and services. So I
take the announcement as just one stake in the ground along a large
frontier. I don't see the proposal being adopted in any regulatory
context--it's too vague and limited--but it's interesting for what it
says about Google and Verizon.

March 16 2010

Google Fiber and the FCC National Broadband Plan

I've puzzled over Google's Fiber project ever since they announced it. It seemed too big, too hubristic (even for a company that's already big and has earned the right to hubris)--and also not a business Google would want to be in. Providing the "last mile" of Internet service is a high cost/low payoff business that I'm glad I escaped (a friend an I seriously considered starting an ISP back in '92, until we said "How would we deal with customers?").

But the FCC's announcement of their plans to widen broadband Internet access in the US (the "National Broadband Strategy") puts Google Fiber in a new context. The FCC's plans are cast in terms of upgrading and expanding the network infrastructure. That's a familiar debate, and Google is a familiar participant. This is really just an extension of the "network neutrality" debate that has been going on with fits and starts over the past few years.

Google has been outspoken in their support for the idea that network carriers shouldn't discriminate between different kinds of traffic. The established Internet carriers largely have opposed network neutrality, arguing that they can't afford to build the kind of high-bandwidth networks that are required for delivering video and other media. While the debate over network neutrality has quieted down recently, the issues are still floating out there, and no less important. Will the networks of the next few decades be able to handle whatever kinds of traffic we want to throw at it?

In the context of network neutrality, and in the context of the FCC's still unannounced (and certain to be controversial) plans, Google Fiber is the trump card. It's often been said that the Internet routes around damage. Censorship is one form of damage; non-neutral networks are another. Which network would you choose? One that can't carry the traffic you want, or one that will? Let's get concrete: if you want video, would you choose a network that only delivers real-time video from providers who have paid additional bandwidth charges to your carrier? Google's core business is predicated upon the availability of richer and richer content on the net. If they can ensure that all the traffic that people want can be carried, they win; if they can't, if the carriers mediate what can and can't be carried, they lose. But Google Fiber ensures that our future networks will indeed be able to "route around damage", and makes what the other carriers do irrelevant. Google Fiber essentially tells the carriers "If you don't build the network we need, we will; you will either move with the times, or you won't survive."

Looked at this way, non-network-neutrality requires a weird kind of collusion. Deregulating the carriers by allowing them to charge premium prices for high bandwidth services, only works as long as all the carriers play the same game, and all raise similar barriers against high-bandwidth traffic. As soon as one carrier says "Hey, we have a bigger vision; we're not going to put limits on what you want to do," the game is over. You'd be a fool not to use that carrier. You want live high-definition video conferencing? You got it. You want 3D video, requiring astronomical data rates? You want services we haven't imagined yet? You can get those too. AT&T and Verizon don't like it? Tough; it's a free market, and if you offer a non-competitive product, you lose. The problem with the entrenched carriers' vision is that, if you discriminate against high-bandwidth services, you'll kill those services off before they can even be invented.

The U.S. is facing huge problems with decaying infrastructure. At one time, we had the best highway system, the best phone system, the most reliable power grid; no longer. Public funding hasn't solved the problem; in these tea-party days, nobody's willing to pay the bills, and few people understand why the bills have to be as large as they are. (If you want some insight into the problems of decaying infrastructure, here's an op-ed piece on Pennsylvania's problems repairing its bridges.) Neither has the private sector, where short-term gain almost always wins over the long-term picture.

But decaying network infrastructure is a threat to Google's core business, and they aren't going to stand by idly. Even if they don't intend to become a carrier themselves, as Eric Schmidt has stated, they could easily change their minds if the other carriers don't keep up. There's nothing like competition (or even the threat of competition) to make the markets work.

We're looking at a rare conjunction. It's refreshing to see a large corporation talk about creating the infrastructure they need to prosper--even if that means getting into a new kind of business. To rewrite the FCC Chairman's metaphor, it's as if GM and Ford were making plans to upgrade the highway system so they could sell better cars. It's an approach that's uniquely Googley; it's the infrastructure analog to releasing plugins that "fix" Internet Explorer for HTML5. "If it's broken and you won't fix it, we will." That's a good message for the carriers to hear. Likewise, it's refreshing to see the FCC, which has usually been a dull and lackluster agency, taking the lead in such a critical area. An analyst quoted by the Times says "One again, the FCC is putting the service providers on the spot." As well they should. A first-class communications network for all citizens is essential if the U.S. is going to be competitive in the coming decades. It's no surprise that Google and the FCC understands this, but I'm excited by their commitment to building it.

February 10 2010

Google Enters the Home Broadband Market

In a week already full of Google announcements, another bomb was casually dropped today via Google's blog. The Borg from California announced that it was experimentally entering the Fiber to the Curb (FTTC) market, and that they planned to offer much higher speeds than current offerings (1Gb/sec) and competitive pricing. The announcement also talks about what, when you remove the marketspeak, is a commitment to net neutrality in their service. This, of course, is not surprising, given Google's strong lobbying for neutrality to the FCC and congress.

What is becoming very clear is that Google wants to have a finger in, if not own, most of the pie when it comes to how consumers and business access their information. Android was a first foray into the mobile market, and we know that Google was in the chase for cellular spectrum during the big auction. Google Voice is another attempt to make an end run around the traditional telecomm infrastructure. But if Google becomes a major player in Fiber to the home, they take a huge step forward.

Once Google has a pipe into the house, they can easily become a player in VoIP and landline telephone service, as well as cable TV and on-demand. Of course, these areas are fraught with regulatory issues. Many towns require cable providers to enter into individual franchise agreements in order to provide service, which can be a nightmare when you multiply it times N towns. But it's much easier to offer when you have a bit pipe already in place. And a 1Gb service will allow for HD or even Blu-Ray 3D service on-demand to the house.

In a way, you can say that it's about time that someone offered Gb fiber in the US. In Europe and Asia, this level of service is already in place, and it's a bit of a crime that we lag so far behind. Google could jumpstart the market in the US, and without all the bagage that the traditional telcos are carrying around.

Mind you, this is just an experiment. According to Google, the pilot will involve somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000 households. But unlike many companies, Google 'experiments' have a habit of turning into game-changing products.

January 14 2010

Innovation Battles Investment as FCC Road Show Returns to Cambridge

Opponents can shed their rhetoric and reveal new depths to their
thought when you bring them together for rapid-fire exchanges,
sometimes with their faces literally inches away from each other. That
made it worth my while to truck down to the MIT Media Lab for
yesterday's href="">Workshop
on Innovation, Investment and the Open Internet, sponsored by the
Federal Communications Commission. In this article I'll cover:

Context and background

The FCC kicked off its country-wide hearing campaign almost two years
ago with a meeting at Harvard Law School, which quickly went wild. I
covered the href="">
experience in one article and the href="">
unstated agendas in another. With a star cast and an introduction
by the head of the House's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the
Internet, Ed Markey, the meeting took on such a cachet that the
public flocked to the lecture hall, only to find it filled because
Comcast recruited people off the street to pack the seats and keep
network neutrality proponents from attending. (They had an overflow
room instead.)

I therefore took pains to arrive at the Media Lab's Bartos Theater
early yesterday, but found it unnecessary. Even though Tim Berners-Lee
spoke, along with well-known experts across the industry, only 175
people turned up, in my estimation (I'm not an expert at counting
crowds). I also noticed that the meeting wasn't worth a
mention today in the Boston Globe.

Perhaps it was the calamitous earthquake yesterday in Haiti, or the
bad economy, or the failure of the Copenhagan summit to solve the
worst crisis ever facing humanity, or concern over three wars the US
is involved in (if you count Yemen), or just fatigue, but it seems
that not as many people are concerned with network neutrality as two
years ago. I recognized several people in the audience yesterday and
surmised that the FCC could have picked out a dozen people at random
from their seats, instead of the parade of national experts on the
panel, and still have led a pretty darned good discussion.

And network neutrality is definitely the greased pig everyone is
sliding around. There are hundreds of things one could discuss
in the context of innovation and investment, but various political
forces ranging from large companies (AT&T versus Google) to highly
visible political campaigners (Huffington Post) have made network
neutrality the agenda. The FCC gave several of the movement's leaders
rein to speak, but perhaps signaled its direction by sending Meredith
Attwell Baker as the commissioner in attendance.

In contrast to FCC chair Julius Genachowski, who publicly calls for
network neutrality (a position also taken by Barack Obama href="">
during his presidential campaign), Baker has traditionally
espoused a free-market stance. She opened the talks yesterday by
announcing that she is "unconvinced there is a problem" and posing the
question: "Is it broken?" I'll provide my own opinion later in this

Two kinds of investment

Investment is the handmaiden, if not the inseminator, of innovation.
Despite a few spectacular successes, like the invention of Linux and
Apache, most new ideas require funding. Even Linux and Apache are
represented now by foundations backed now by huge companies.

So why did I title this article "Innovation Battles Investment"?
Because investment happens at every level of the Internet, from the
cables and cell towers up to the applications you load on your cell

Here I'll pause to highlight an incredible paradigm shift that was
visible at this meeting--a shift so conclusive that no one mentioned
it. Are you old enough to remember the tussle between "voice" and
"data" on telephone lines? Remember the predictions that data would
grow in importance at the expense of voice (meaning Plain Old
Telephone Service) and the milestones celebrated in the trade press when
data pulled ahead of voice?

Well, at the hearing yesterday, the term "Internet" was used to cover
the whole communications infrastructure, including wires and cell
phone service. This is a mental breakthrough all it's own, and one
I'll call the Triumph of the Singularity.

But different levels of infrastructure benefit from different
incentives. I found that all the participants danced around this.
Innovation and investment at the infrastructure level got short shrift
from the network neutrality advocates, whether in the bedtime story
version delivered by Barbara van Schewick or the deliberately
intimidating, breakneck overview by economist Shane Greenstein, who
defined openness as "transparency and consistency to facilitate
communication between different partners in an independent value

You can explore his href="">
papers on your own, but I took this to mean, more or less, that
everybody sharing a platform should broadcast their intentions and
appraise everybody else of their plans, so that others can make the
most rational decisions and invest wisely. Greenstein realized, of
course that firms have little incentive to share their strategies. He said that
communication was "costly," which I take as a reference not to an expenditure of
money but to a surrender of control and relinquishing of opportunities.

This is just what the cable and phone companies are not going to do.
Dot-com innovator Jeffrey Glueck, founder of href="">Skyfire, would like the FCC to
require ISPs to give application providers and users at least 60 to 90
days notice before making any changes to how they treat traffic. This
is absurd in an environment where bad actors require responses within
a few seconds and the victory goes to the router administrators with
the most creative coping strategy. Sometimes network users just have
to trust their administrators to do the best thing for them. Network
neutrality becomes a political and ethical issue when administrators
don't. But I'll return to this point later.

The pocket protector crowd versus the bean

If the network neutrality advocates could be accused of trying to
emasculate the providers, advocates for network provider prerogative
were guilty of taking the "Trust us" doctrine too far. For me, the
best part of yesterday's panel was how it revealed the deep gap that
still exists between those with an engineering point of view and those
with a traditional business point of view.

The engineers, led by Internet designer David Clark, repeated the
mantra of user control of quality of service, the vehicle for this
being the QoS field added to the IP packet header. Van Schewick
postulated a situation where a user increases the QoS on one session
because they're interviewing for a job over the Internet, then reduces
the QoS to chat with a friend.

In the rosy world envisioned by the engineers, we would deal not with
the physical reality of a shared network with our neighbors, all
converging into a backhaul running from our ISP to its peers, but with
the logical mechanism of a limited, dedicated bandwidth pipe (former
senator Ted Stevens can enjoy his revenge) that we would spend our
time tweaking. One moment we're increasing the allocation for file
transfer so we can upload a spreadsheet to our work site; the next
moment we're privileging the port we use for an MPMG.

The practicality of such a network service is open to question. Glueck
pointed out that users are unlikely ever to ask for lower quality of
service (although this is precisely the model that Internet experts
have converged on, as I report in my 2002 article href="">
A Nice Way to Get Network Quality of Service?). He recommends
simple tiers of service--already in effect at many providers--so that
someone who wants to carry out a lot of P2P file transfers or
high-definition video conferencing can just pay for it.

In contrast, network providers want all the control. Much was made
during the panel of a remark by Marcus Weldon of Alcatel-Lucent in
support of letting the providers shape traffic. His pointed out that
video teleconferencing over the fantastically popular Skype delivered
unappealing results over today's best-effort Internet delivery, and
suggested a scenario where the provider gives the user a dialog box
where the user could increase the QoS for Skype in order to enjoy the
video experience.

Others on the panel legitimately flagged this comment as a classic
illustration of the problem with providers' traffic shaping: the
provider would negotiate with a few popular services such as Skype
(which boasts tens of millions of users online whenever you log in)
and leave innovative young services to fend for themselves in a
best-effort environment.

But the providers can't see doing quality of service any other way.
Their business model has always been predicated on designing services
around known costs, risks, and opportunities. Before they roll out a
service, they need to justify its long-term prospects and reserve
control over it for further tweaking. If the pocket protector crowd in
Internet standards could present their vision to the providers in a
way that showed them the benefits they'd accrue from openness
(presumably by creating a bigger pie), we might have progress. But the
providers fear, above else, being reduced to a commodity. I'll pick up
this theme in the next section.

Is network competition over?

Law professor Christopher S. Yoo is probably the most often heard (not
at this panel, unfortunately, where he was given only a few minutes)
of academics in favor of network provider prerogatives. He suggested
that competition was changing, and therefore requiring a different
approach to providers' funding models, from the Internet we knew in
the 1990s. Emerging markets (where growth comes mostly from signing up
new customers) differ from saturated markets (where growth comes
mainly from wooing away your competitors' customers). With 70% of
households using cable or fiber broadband offerings, he suggested the
U.S. market was getting saturated, or mature.

Well, only if you accept that current providers' policies will stifle
growth. What looks like saturation to an academic in the U.S. telecom
field looks like a state of primitive underinvestment to people who
enjoy lightning-speed service in other developed nations.

But Yoo's assertion makes us pause for a moment to consider the
implications of a mature network. When change becomes predictable and
slow, and an infrastructure is a public good--as I think everyone
would agree the Internet is--it becomes a candidate for government
takeover. Indeed, there have been calls for various forms of
government control of our network infrastructure. In some places this
is actually happening, as cities and towns create their own networks.
A related proposal is to rigidly separate the physical infrastructure
from the services, barring companies that provide the physical
infrastructure from offering services (and therefore presumably
relegating them to a maintenance role--a company in that position
wouldn't have much incentive to take on literally ground-breaking new

Such government interventions are politically inconceivable in the
United States. Furthermore, experience in other developed nations with
more successful networks shows that it is unnecessary.

No one can doubt that we need a massive investment in new
infrastructure if we want to use the Internet as flexibly and
powerfully as our trading partners. But there was disagreement yesterday about
how much of an effort the investment will take, and where it will come

Yoo argued that a mature market requires investment to come from
operating expenditures (i.e., charging users more money, which
presumably is justified by discriminating against some traffic in
order to offer enhanced services at a premium) instead of capital
expenditures. But Clark believes that current operating expenditures
would permit adequate growth. He anticipated a rise in Internet access
charges of $20 a month, which could fund the added bandwidth we need
to reach the Internet speeds of advanced countries. In exchange for
paying that extra $20 per month, we would enjoy all the content we
want without paying cable TV fees.

The current understanding by providers is that usage is rising
"exponentially" (whatever that means--they don't say what the exponent
is) whereas charges are rising slowly. Following some charts from
Alcatel-Lucent's Weldon that showed profits disappearing entirely in a
couple years--a victim of the squeeze between rising usage and slow
income growth--Van Schewick challenged him, arguing that providers can
enjoy lower bandwidth costs to the tune of 30% per year. But Weldon
pointed out that the only costs going down are equipment, and claimed
that after a large initial drop caused by any disruptive new
technology, costs of equipment decrease only 10% per year.

Everyone agreed that mobile, the most exciting and
innovation-supporting market, is expensive to provide and suffering an
investment crisis. It is also the least open part of the Internet and
the part most dependent on legacy pricing (high voice and SMS
charges), deviating from the Triumph of the Singularity.

So the Internet is like health care in the U.S.: in worse shape than
it appears. We have to do something to address rising
usage--investment in new infrastructure as well as new
applications--just as we have to lower health care costs that have
surpassed 17% of the gross domestic product.

Weldon's vision--a rosy one in its own way, complementing the
user-friendly pipe I presented earlier from the engineers--is that
providers remain free to control the speeds of different Internet
streams and strike deals with anyone they want. He presented provider
prerogatives as simple extensions of what already happens now, where
large companies create private networks where they can impose QoS on
their users, and major web sites contract with content delivery
networks such as Akamai (represented at yesterday's panel by lawyer
Aaron Abola) to host their content for faster response time. Susie Kim
Riley of Camiant testified that European providers are offering
differentiated services already, and making money by doing so.

What Weldon and Riley left out is what I documented in href="">
A Nice Way to Get Network Quality of Service? Managed networks
providing QoS are not the Internet. Attempts to provide QoS over the
Internet--by getting different providers to cooperate in privileging
certain traffic--have floundered. The technical problems may be
surmountable, but no one has figured out how to build trust and to design
adequate payment models that would motivate providers to cooperate.

It's possible, as Weldon asserts, that providers allowed to manage
their networks would invest in infrastructure that would ultimately
improve the experience for all sites--those delivered over the
Internet by best-effort methods as well as those striking deals. But
the change would still represent increased privatization of the public
Internet. It would create what application developers such as Glueck
and Nabeel Hyatt of Conduit Labs fear most: a thousand different
networks with different rules that have to be negotiated with
individually. And new risks and costs would be placed in the way of
the disruptive innovators we've enjoyed on the Internet.

Competition, not network neutrality, is actually the key issue facing
the FCC, and it was central to their Internet discussions in the years
following the 1996 Telecom Act. For the first five years or so, the
FCC took seriously a commitment to support new entrants by such
strategies as requiring incumbent companies to allow interconnection.
Then, especially under Michael Powell, the FCC did an about-face.

The question posed during this period was: what leads to greater
investment and growth--letting a few big incumbents enter each other's
markets, or promoting a horde of new, small entrants? It's pretty
clear that in the short term, the former is more effective because the
incumbents have resources to throw at the problem, but that in the
long term, the latter is required in order to find new solutions and
fix problems by working around them in creative ways.

Yet the FCC took the former route, starting in the early 2000s. They
explicitly made a deal with incumbents: build more infrastructure, and
we'll relax competition rules so you don't have to share it with other

Starting a telecom firm is hard, so it's not clear that pursuing the
other route would have saved us from the impasse we're in today. But a
lack of competition is integral to our problems--including the one
being fought out in the field of "network neutrality."

All the network neutrality advocates I've talked to wish that we had
more competition at the infrastructure level, because then we could
rely on competition to discipline providers instead of trying to
regulate such discipline. I covered this dilemma in a 2006 article, href="">Network Neutrality
and an Internet with Vision. But somehow, this kind of competition
is now off the FCC agenda. Even in the mobile space, they offer
spectrum though auctions that permit the huge incumbents to gather up
the best bands. These incumbents then sit on spectrum without doing
anything, a strategy known as "foreclosure" (because it forecloses
competitors from doing something useful with it).

Because everybody goes off in his own direction, the situation pits two groups against each other that should be
cooperating: small ISPs and proponents of an open Internet.

What to regulate

Amy Tykeson, CEO of a small Oregon Internet provider named
BendBroadband, forcefully presented the view of an independent
provider, similar to the more familiar imprecations by href=""> Brett Glass of Lariat. In their
world--characterized by paper-thin margins, precarious deals with
back-end providers, and the constant pressure to provide superb
customer service--flexible traffic management is critical and network
neutrality is viewed as a straitjacket.

I agree that many advocates of network neutrality have oversimplified
the workings of the Internet and downplayed the day-to-day
requirements of administrators. In contrast, as I have shown, large
network providers have overstepped their boundaries. But to end this
article on a positive note (you see, I'm trying) I'll report that the
lively exchange did produce some common ground and a glimmer of hope
for resolving the differing positions.

First, in an exchange between Berners-Lee and van Schewick on the
pro-regulatory side and Riley on the anti-regulatory side, a more
nuanced view of non-discrimination and quality of service emerged.
Everybody on panel offered vociferous exclamations in support of the position that it was
unfair discrimination for a network provider to prevent a user from
getting legal content or to promote one web site over a competing web
site. And this is a major achievement, because those are precisely
the practices that providers liked AT&T and Verizon claim the
right to do--the practices that spawned the current network neutrality

To complement this consensus, the network neutrality folks approved
the concept of quality of service, so long as it was used to improve
the user experience instead of to let network providers pick winners.
In a context where some network neutrality advocates have made QoS a
dirty word, I see progress.

This raises the question of what is regulation. The traffic shaping
policies and business deals proposed by AT&T and Verizon are a
form of regulation. They claim the same privilege that large
corporations--we could look at health care again--have repeatedly
tried to claim when they invoke the "free market": the right of
corporations to impose their own regulations.

Berners-Lee and others would like the government to step in and issue
regulations that suppress the corporate regulations. A wide range of
wording has been proposed for the FCC's consideration. Commissioner
Baker asked whether, given the international reach of the Internet,
the FCC should regulate at all. Van Schewick quite properly responded
that the abuses carried out by providers are at the local level and
therefore can be controlled by the government.

Two traits of a market are key to innovation, and came up over and
over yesterday among dot-com founders and funders (represented by Ajay
Agarwal of Bain Capital) alike: a level playing field, and
light-handed regulation.

Sometimes, as Berners-Lee pointed out, government regulation is
required to level the playing field. The transparency and consistency
cited by Greenstein and others are key features of the level playing
field. And as I pointed out, a vacuum in government regulation is
often filled by even more onerous regulation by large corporations.

One of the most intriguing suggestions of the day came from Clark, who
elliptically suggested that the FCC provide "facilitation, not
regulation." I take this to mean the kind of process that Comcast and
BitTorrent went through, of which Sally Shipman Wentworth of ISOC
boasted about in her opening remarks. Working with the IETF (which she
said created two new working groups to deal with the problem), Comcast
and BitTorrent worked out a protocol that should reduce the load of
P2P file sharing on networks and end up being a win-win for everybody.

But there are several ways to interpret this history. To free market
ideologues, the Comcast/BitTorrent collaboration shows that private
actors on the Internet can exploit its infinite extendibility to find
their own solutions without government meddling. Free market
proponents also call on anti-competition laws to hold back abuses. But
those calling for parental controls would claim that Comcast wanted
nothing to do with BitTorrent and started to work on technical
solutions only after getting tired of the feces being thrown its way
by outsiders, including the FCC.

And in any case--as panelists pointed out--the IETF has no enforcement
power. The presence of a superior protocol doesn't guarantee that
developers and users will adopt it, or that network providers will
allow traffic that could be a threat to their business models.

The FCC at Harvard, which I mentioned at the beginning of this
article, promised intervention in the market to preserve Internet
freedom. What we got after that (as I predicted) was a slap on
Comcast's wrist and no clear sense of direction. The continued
involvement of the FCC--including these public forums, which I find
educational--show, along with the appointment of the more
interventionist Genachowski and the mandate to promote broadband in
the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, that it can't step away
from the questions of competition and investment.

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