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Network Neutrality - The Fight for Internet Infrastructure

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25 April 2006
Imagine, for a moment, that your cellphone provider is Cingular and your closest friend has only a landline provided by Qwest. Currently, because of common carrier regulation, each telephone provider must treat incoming calls as though both phones were on the same network, even if they aren't. This neutrality was mandated by Congress because telephone networks were (and still are, at least for the time being) considered infrastructure.

Proposals currently being promoted inside the beltway by telecos and cable firms such as AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner (also the nation's largest media company) and Verizon are laying the groundwork for dismantling this network neutrality for internet service. In the long run, this means dismantling network neutrality for telephone service as well. The writing is on the wall: phone calls will continue to migrate to internet protocol and delivery.

Latest Developments

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is debating draft legislation (pdf), the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006. Network neutrality is being debated as part of this larger measure, which would amend the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Senate schedule lags the House.

The prime sponsor in the House is Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-TX). Co-sponsors include Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee Chair; Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) Commerce Committee Vice-Chair; and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). Rush received a $1 million "charitable" gift from teleco SBC/AT&T, an outspoken opponent of network neutrality.

Technology Overview
The distributed nature of the Internet means that content -- whether it is e-mail, instant messages, VoIP "phone" calls, music or video -- is broken into small packages of zeros-and-ones. These small packets make their way individually to their destination -- travelling over whichever network is the least traffiked that millisecond. No toll roads and often more than one route.

This could change if network discrimination becomes the law of the land.

That's why an unusually broad coalition -- which includes organizations from both sides of the aisle (The American Library Association, Gun Owners of America, and Parents Television Council, for example) as well as leading technologists (Vint Cerf, Lawrence Lessig, Craig (Craig's List) Newmark) -- has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue and press Congress to preserve net neutrality.

Stake

According to proponents of network neutrality, what is at stake is the freedom to access whatever online information (content) strikes your fancy, using whatever device you wish. Rather than focusing on their responsibility to maximize network performance, telecos and cable companies want to control access to content, either by charging additional service fees or by prioritizing some content over other content.

The threat is not hypothetical: technology exists that facilitates packet discrimination and companies have used it. For example:
  • In 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked DSL customers from using rival Web-based phone service Vonage. The FCC intervened and fined the firm $15,000 in 2005. ALso in 2004, a Missouri VoIP provider appealed to the FCC to prohibit broadband providers from blocking packets from competing firms. The firm, Nuvio, said a block can be programmed in five minutes or less.
  • In 2005, a Canadian teleco -- Telus -- blocked its customers from visiting a pro-union website during a labor dispute. Telus just happened to be the company "at the heart of the dispute."
  • In 2006, Time Warner blocked AOL customers from receiving e-mail that referenced dearaol.com, a campaign opposing AOL's proposed multi-tier e-mail delivery system (network discrimination).
Currently, a provider of high-bandwidth material like video feeds pays usage fees based on bandwidth transmitted (consumed). But they do not have to pay additional fees to ensure content is delivered.
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