The Real Battle Behind Network Neutrality

In some ways, broadband has become the tech industry's equivalent to healthcare and education: everybody agrees that it's a good thing and everybody thinks all Americans should have access to it.

A quick glance over the deadline-beating public comments filed with the FCC last week shows that the vast majority of industry players and consumer advocates think that universal broadband access is a noble goal worth working toward. The Internet Innovation Alliance, for instance, says that the national broadband plan should "enable the government to partner with the private sector to extend broadband service to every corner of the country." AT&T, meanwhile, says that the broadband plan's two goals should be ensuring broadband access and adoption "for 100% of Americans" by 2014. And the Computer & Communications Industry Association says simply that the plan "must ensure that all Americans have access to broadband."

So everybody likes broadband. The big question, however, is what type of Internet our broadband connections will deliver. Network neutrality advocates this week launched a campaign urging the FCC to ensure that any national broadband strategy includes net neutrality rules. The campaign, called "It's the Internet, Stupid," makes the explicit argument that broadband connectivity without an open Internet is worthless.

"Broadband is not the Internet," the group said in its letter to the FCC, which was signed by well-known net neutrality advocates such as Larry Lessig, Harold Feld, Scott Bradner, Jeff Jarvis and Craig's List founder Craig Newmark. "The essence of the Internet is that it carries all packets that follow its protocols regardless of what kinds of data the packets carry."

Defining Terms and Battlefields

Broadly speaking, net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should not be allowed to block or degrade Internet traffic from their competitors in order to speed up their own. The major telcos have uniformly opposed net neutrality by arguing that such government intervention would take away ISPs' incentives to upgrade their networks, thus stalling the widespread deployment of broadband Internet. The fight over net neutrality has only intensified now that the government has designated $7.2 billion to fund broadband infrastructure in the recently passed economic stimulus package, as net neutrality proponents have argued that the money will be wasted if it funds networks that do not deliver an open Internet.

Specifically, the "It's the Internet, Stupid" campaign wants the FCC to implement the "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations" that the commission first outlined in 2005 as part of any broadband plan. These principles state that networks must allow users to access any lawful Internet content of their choice, to run any legal Web applications of their choice, and to connect to the network using any device that does not harm the network. The campaign also wants the FCC to "prohibit discriminatory or preferential treatment of packets based on sender, recipient of packet contents" in its national broadband plan.

Not wanting to let net neutrality proponents define the debate, AT&T addressed the issue directly in its public comment filed with the FCC this week. AT&T spent nearly 30 pages attacking proposals to implement strict net neutrality rules and urged the FCC to continue its policy of implementing rules against discrimination on a case-by-case basis. The FCC has very rarely gotten itself involved in network discrimination cases, as its most high-profile case came last year when it voted to punish Comcast for "invasive" traffic-shaping practices.

Verizon aired similar sentiments in its comments and called net neutrality a "backward-looking, heavy-handed regulation" that "would undermine consumer choice and inhibit innovation and investment in broadband."

Verizon's alternative to network neutrality was fairly vague, as it recommended that the FCC require "that network management practices be reasonable, and not unreasonably discriminatory, but not otherwise tying the hands of the network managers." The company also said that these practices were best defined by carriers' own network engineers "who must respond to real world concerns."

The Carriers' Concerns

Big telecom carriers aren't alone in opposing net neutrality regulations, of course. Brett Glass, the owner and founder of the Wyoming-based ISP Lariat Networks and a longtime net neutrality critic, also thinks that implementing net neutrality rules would restrict ISPs' ability to effectively manage their networks and maintain their service levels.

"The simple fact is that networks need to be managed, and that means the ability to recognize traffic and treat it appropriately," he says. "In other words, the network absolutely must "discriminate" ... to work well. The Internet protocols were designed, from the very beginning, with provisions for quality of service and policy routing for this very reason."

Glass agrees with net neutrality proponents that creating a robust and competitive Internet service market is one of the best ways to spread broadband services, but he doesn't think that net neutrality will help achieve that goal. Rather, he thinks the government should only be involved in regulating overtly anticompetitive behaviors, which he says include "price squeezing, price gouging in the ‘middle mile' by ILECs, and refusal to deal by backbone owners."

Although no one knows at this point whether the FCC will adopt net neutrality rules as part of its national broadband plan, net neutrality advocates are likely to get a more sympathetic hearing now than they have under past FCCs. Newly nominated FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has long been an advocate of network neutrality and he was reportedly influential in getting President Obama to endorse network neutrality as part of his technology platform while he was a presidential candidate.

Presuming Genachowski gets confirmed as FCC chair sometime within the next month, the FCC will have about seven months to make up its mind about network neutrality before releasing its final plan in February 2010. In the meantime, expect ISPs and net neutrality advocates to engage in an all-out battle that will determine the nature of the Internet in the United States for years to come.

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