Features

net.wars: Double the networks, double the neutralities

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 March 2007


Back in 1975, the Ithaca, New York apartment building I was living in had a fire in the basement, and by the time it was out so was my telephone line. The repairman's very first move was to disconnect the $3 30-foot cable I had bought at K-Mart and confiscate it. At the time, AT&T's similar cable cost $25.

Wendy M Grossman

In fact, by then AT&T had no right to control what equipment you attached to your phone line because of the Carterfone case, in which the FCC ruled against AT&T's argument that it had to own all the equipment in order to ensure that the network would function properly. But this is how the telco world worked; in Edinburgh in 1983 legally you could only buy a modem from British Telecom. I think it cost about £300 - for 300 baud. Expensive enough that I didn't get online until 1990.

Stories like this are part of why the Internet developed the way it did: the pioneers were determined to avoid a situation where the Internet was controlled like this. In the early 1980s, when the first backbone was being build in the US to connect the five NSF-funded regional computing centers, the feeling was mutual. John Connolly, who wrote the checks for a lot of that work, told me in an interview in 1993 that they had endless meetings with the telcos trying to get them interested, but those companies just couldn't see that there was any money in the Internet.

Well, now here we are, and the Internet is chewing up the telcos' business models and creating havoc for the cable companies who were supposed to be the beneficiaries, and so it's not surprising that the telcos' one wish is to transform the Internet into something more closely approximating the controlled world they used to love.

Which is how we arrived at the issue known as network neutrality. This particular debate has been percolating in the US for at least a year now, and some discussion is beginning in the UK. This week, at a forum held in Westminster on the subject, Ofcom and the DTI said the existing regulatory framework was sufficient.

The basic issue is, of course, money. The traditional telcos are not, of course, having a very good time of things, and it was inevitable that it would occur to some bright CEO - it turned out to be the head of Verizon - that there ought to be some way of "monetizing" all those millions of people going to Google, Yahoo!, and the other top sites. Why not charge a fee to give priority service? That this would also allow the telcos to discriminate against competitor VOIP services and the cablecos (chiefly Comcast) to discrminate against competing online video services is also a plus. These proposals are opposed not only by the big sites in question but by the usual collection of Net rights organization, who tend to believe all sites were created equal - or should be.

Ofcom - and others I've talked to - believes that the situation in the UK is different, in part because although most of the nation's DSL service is provided either directly or indirectly by BT that company has to be cooperative with its competitors or face the threat of regulation. The EU, however, is beginning to take a greater interest in these matters, and has begun legal proceedings against Germany over a law exempting Deutsche Telecom from opening the local loop of its new VDSL network to competitors.

But Timothy Wu, a law professor at Columbia and author of Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World, has pointed out that the current debates are ignoring an important sector of the market: wireless. The mobile market is not now, nor ever has been, neutral. It is less closed in Europe, where you can at least buy a phone and stick any SIM in it; but in the US most phones are hardware-locked to their networks, a situation that could hardly be less consumer-friendly. Apple's new iPod, for example, will be available through only one carrier, AT&T Wireless.

Wu's paper, along with the so-called "Carterfone" decision that forced AT&T to stop confiscating people's phone cords, is cited by Skype in a petition to get the FCC to require mobile phone operators to allow software applications open access. Skype's gripe is easy to comprehend: it can't get its service onto mobile phones. The operators' lack of interest in opening their networks is also easy to comprehend: what consumer is going to call on their expensive tariffs if they can use the Internet data connection to make cheap ones? Wu also documents other cases of features that are added or subtracted according to the network operators' demands: call timers (missing), WiFi  (largely absent), and Bluetooth (often crippled in the US).

The upshot is that because the two markets - wireless phones and the Internet – have developed from opposite directions, we have two network neutrality debates, not one. The wonder is that it took us so long to notice.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).