A solution in sight‾

05 Sep 2007

AT&T unleashed a firestorm of criticism when it censored Pearl Jam lyrics in a webcast. More than anything else, it's resparked the net neutrality debate that has implications for telcos and consumers worldwide.

First, the incident. AT&T, via its BlueRoom website, broadcast the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago last month in which lyrics from a Pearl Jam song criticizing President Bush were deleted by the content monitor. The monitor had been hired by AT&T to delete swearing and nudity for the broadcast.

AT&T apologized for the mistake. But then the story broke that this wasn't the first time political objectionable content had been deleted from Blue Room. As the LA Times put it, 'Oops, they did it before.'

A lobby group, The Future of Music Coalition, pointed to numerous instances of swearing that had been allowed, while on several occasions political criticism - over Hurricane Katrina and Iraq - had been censored. Critics stepped up to declare that this was the kind of bias that AT&T would display if were allowed to build its own video and music business, and hence the need for strong network neutrality laws, etc, etc.

This topic has been smoldering since last year's inconclusive debate. As you may recall, lobby groups, backed by content firms such as Yahoo and Google, attempted to have Congress pass legislation mandating network neutrality - the idea that all data over the net should be treated in a non-discriminatory way, irrespective of the type or source of the packet. The big telcos and cable companies, with the support of some vendors such as Cisco, lobbied back and the two groups fought out a draw.

It was always going to come back on the agenda. And not just in the US.

Workable framework

In the UK, the biggest British ISPs are threatening to put bandwidth limits around the BBC's new iPlayer service, which encourages viewers to download and watch BBC TV programs. It's very much alive in Asia, too. Chinese carriers estimate that on average 50%-60% of their backbone traffic is taken up with P2P file transfers. They've complained it's unfair that they should have to invest in further capacity without receiving any further revenue.

But a Harvard law professor, Timothy Wu (full disclosure: he's a member of the pro-neutrality SavetheInternet.com) argues that the merger agreement between AT&T and BellSouth, forged by the FCC in January this year, might offer the basis for a solution.

He says it's 'the first strong network neutrality language yet seen in any broadband regulatory device.' According to Wu, the agreement is premised on preserving the cultural, political and economic benefits of an open communications network, 'without unfairly restricting AT&T's business.'

That's pretty cool from a net neutrality perspective, but it also offers some flexibility for carriers to vary the quality and prices of different kinds of content on their networks.

It can vary the QoS according to the protocol being carried. So if a customer wants to watch the BBC or TVB or NBC, he or she can order the video-premium DSL service. But the carrier won't be able to discriminate in favor of any particular video from a specific content provider.

The framework also excludes carrier managed services for enterprises - an important concession.

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