A victory for network neutrality‾

25 Jan 2007

Network neutrality proponents in the United States have touted AT&T's willingness to temporarily protect equal access to the Internet for most services as a great victory for open data networks around the world.

Don't be too sure about that.

Basically, Democratic members of the Federal Communications Commission were able to stonewall AT&T's pending $86 billion takeover of BellSouth late last year until AT&T blinked and make concessions on the divisive network neutrality issue. To get the deal approved, company executives agreed to not sell premium delivery of Web content for the next two years. That agreement preserves the status quo in the US market, where all content providers are treated equally on the bandwidth pipes that the large service providers control.

AT&T and other telecoms waged a forceful political fight last year over network neutrality, effectively blocking all Congressional proposals mandating nondiscriminatory treatment of Web content. And it's likely AT&T and the others will wage precisely the same battle as the clock ticks off on AT&T pledge to treat all content providers equally. AT&T Chairman Ed Whitacre steadfastly maintains the company has the right to control what moves over the pipes, and a company spokesman said the latest agreement doesn't alter the view that network neutrality legal mandate is "unwarranted and unwise."

And if a business model of service providers charging high-traffic Web content providers an extra fee for faster delivery is adopted in the US, it's likely to spread to many other markets in Asia and Europe.

Nevertheless, proponents believe AT&T's concession changes the playng field because to effectively kills the argument that the network neutrality concept is just too vague to be adequately defined. It also provides a base point from which the next political battle over the issue will be launched.

However, it appears highly unlikely either that the FCC is going to embrace network neutrality or that Congress is going to be much more successful this year enacting the concept into law than it was last year. (The proposal lost by more than a 100-vote margin last session.) Large Internet companies like Yahoo, Amazon and Google desperately want the neutrality mandate placed into law, but the large telecom service providers who are building out fiber networks in the US market are just as strongly lined up against it. The likely outcome to the expected lobbying frenzy is a stalemate.

That outcome will serve AT&T well. Two years moves quickly, while politics often moves at a snail's pace. It hardly seems that AT&Ts temporary concession is going to have all that much impact on the US market at all, let alone the rest of the world. Network neutrality backers may be thrilled that AT&T had to back down on the issue to get its BellSouth deal approved. But they better roll up their sleeves if they think that preserved a "free" Net. So far, they really haven't won anything more significant than a feel-good, transitory victory.

(Al Senia is editor of America's Network and is based in Los Angeles.)

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