Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1996

Mobile phoneTwo Congressional committees are currently working on draft legislation that would revamp the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The current posture of the FCC is to ensure network neutrality: that is, to guarantee that telecommunications providers will not filter, block, delay, or impede certain types of packets over other types.

That, however, could change with the rewritten version of the Act.

Less than two years ago, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps pointed out the dangers related to killing off network neutrality:

[The current] internet may not be the one that we know in the future... Entrenched interests are already jockeying to constrain the openness that has been the internet's defining hallmark. They are lobbying the FCC to aide and abet them. They claim all they are advocating is a deregulated environment, where the market can reign supreme. But, in reality, they are seeking government help to allow a few companies to turn the internet from a place of competition and innovation, into an oligopoly.

Power over the internet would reside with the network owners, with a huge choke point, constrain consumer choices, limit sources of news and information and entertainment, undermine competitors, and quash disruptive new technologies... They can talk competition all they want, but the race to combine distribution and content spell economic constraint here, just as clearly as they did when John D. Rockefeller married distribution to his product... We cannot afford to buy into this vision. If we do, we will wind up one day, looking back, shaking our heads, and wondering whatever happened to that open, dynamic, liberating, and promising internet that once we knew...

Unfortunately, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin hasn't been quite as visionary. He's expressed an unwillingness to adopt rules to limit anti-competitive behavior, ostensibly because there's been no evidence of a problem thus far.

Martin obviously hasn't reviewed the insidious new hardware that Cisco and other vendors are hawking to the carriers. This new infrastructure is designed with one thing in mind: to monitor, filter, cap, and limit what consumers can do.

Using this new hardware, our favorite RBOC -- BellWest -- could easily prevent consumers from trying Vonage's Voice-over-IP (VoIP) offering.

Think that couldn't happen? It's already starting. Vonage head Jeffrey Citron indicates that his company's service has already been targeted by carriers on several occasions. And his conversations with telco execs aren't exactly promising: "Major phone company executives seem to suggest that our service isn't going to work as well if we don't pay them additional fees."

And if we examine new broadband service contracts, it gets even more obvious. Verizon Wireless' Broadband Access contract reportedly stipulates some rather onerous terms:

Unlimited NationalAccess/BroadbandAccess cannot be used (1) for uploading, downloading or streaming of movies, music or games, (2) with server devices or with host computer applications, including, without limitation, Web camera posts or broadcasts, automatic data feeds, telemetry applications, automated functions or any other machine-to-machine applications [Ed: peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing likely falls into this category], (3) as a substitute or backup for private lines [Ed: Voice-over-IP (VoIP)] or dedicated data connection...

Walter McCormick, the head of telco lobbying group USTA, says all of the right things:

...We will not block, impair, or degrade content, applications or services... That is the plainest and most direct way I know to address concerns.

However, as Ronald Reagan used to say: Trust... but verify.

When even the FCC Commissioners are paranoid about the power the carriers could hold over the Internet, it's certainly time for us to be equally paranoid. Get involved by signing a petition that business and Congressional leaders will see. And help get the message out: we need network neutrality written into law to ensure the carriers keep the Internet open and Democratic.

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