The search for common ground

Ed Ogonek
04 Nov 2006

True or false: a clownfish is to a sea anemone as a content provider is to a service provider. No, this isn't a Scholastic Aptitude Test question. This kind of symbiotic relationship, defined as 'a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence,' holds significant parallels for the Network neutrality debate.

Network neutrality is the volatile dialogue between those who develop online content, such as Google, and those who deliver it, such as wireless and wireline service providers. Although the debate involves many issues, ultimately it's about access to both revenue and customers. Internet advocates liken it to the Tea Tax, crying 'the Internet must remain free.' Meanwhile, service providers cry foul, comparing content providers to parasites, living off the host.

VoIP companies, such as Vonage, often are portrayed as somewhat parasitic, consuming bandwidth to offer services that siphon customers and revenue from the company providing that bandwidth. Adding insult to injury, VoIP providers typically charge less for telephony services than the companies providing the broadband pipe. Over the long term, this pricing pressure could push some broadband providers to curtail future investment capabilities.

Symbiotic relationship
Fortunately, broadband access providers and Internet companies have a common desire: to make money from the same subscribers. That's why neither can be really successful without the other - and why, like the aforementioned clownfish and sea anemone, they need to form a symbiotic relationship, where both parties benefit.

Symbiotic relationships are already common. Companies such as Amazon, eBay and Google couldn't survive without a conduit for selling their services. From that perspective, negatively impacting the bottom line of broadband providers would be a bit like biting the hand that feeds you. By the same token, most consumers wouldn't pay for broadband unless there were ample services and content to warrant it. So for broadband providers, it doesn't make much sense to stymie the companies that fill their pipes with music, video and information.

The Internet wouldn't be much of a business opportunity without Amazon, Google or iTunes to get consumers in the mood to pony up for DSL or cable. After all, why would people want to pay broadband prices just to get their email faster‾

Here's how a symbiotic relationship could work: a content provider with an established instant-messaging brand partners with a telco to offer a VoIP phone plug-in for its IM panel. VoIP calls to the telco's other customers are free, while calls to other fixed and cellular services incur charges that are conveniently added to the caller's telco bill.

In this scenario, the telco-Internet company partnership also ensures quality of service (QoS) - something that's been sorely lacking in consumer VoIP - because the two companies are working with, rather than against, each other. By sharing information such as the user's PC and modem capabilities, as well as the applications that they run, the two companies can work together to ensure that, for example, customers' VPN doesn't cause packet loss that makes their VoIP calls stutter. By sharing this information with each other, the two companies can offer unique perks that create value for customers, such as the ability for customers to choose not to have their VoIP calls interrupted by IMs.

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