Saturday, January 07, 2006

FCC knocks telcos' secret plan to divide and bill the web

The Register covers the new FCC chairman's opposition to the Telco's plans to create a two-tiered internet--one for customers of customers who pay them off and one for customers of people that don't. The story has a special call-out for our friend BellSouth.

BellSouth is already negotiating with one movie download provider to take a cut of the $2 to $5 fee for each film delivered, according to the paper. By paying the fee, the unnamed movie delivery company would be able to guarantee the fastest possible downloads to consumers.

It's not a pretty scenario.

As the paper notes, the telecommunications companies have traditionally used a "best efforts" policy to move internet traffic as quickly as they can regardless of the type of data. Now, however, as increased broadband usage has made movie, music and other content services more feasible, the telcos want to cash in on the shift.

I've gone over this general topic thoroughly before so here's a (relatively) brief synopsis of how you'll experience what's called the net neutrality issue:

Companies who pay the incumbent providers (like BellSouth) for priority bandwidth get guaranteed bandwidth and everything else on the web gets what's left over. You already experience variable speeds as the service load varies. But right now, you are paying for and largely getting "best effort" -- nobody is prioritizing someone else's download and leaving you with what is left over. The current situation is uneven and irritating. But it is "fair." The corporations are acting in good faith. But BellSouth, as we've seen locally, isn't big on "fair." They and the other phone companies are fighting drop the "best effort" promise. If they succeed the slowdown you experience in the first days won't be terrible because it will be hard to notice the degradation in the connection you bought. But that won't last. As the pipe fills it will be more and more necessary for other providers to also pay off the owners of the last mile connection in order to give their customers a half-decent experience. As more and more companies give in the guaranteed pipe will eat up more and more of the available bandwidth will be taken up to meet the guarantee. Eventually there will be so little left over that the providers of voice or movies or google's search engine, (all mentioned by BellSouth as targets) and so on will have to pay or your download of their material will be too slow to wait for.

Who loses? The consumer and every small and startup company around. Who comes out even? The big providers who can afford to buy a cozy relationship with the Bells by passing on the cost to you. Who wins? Only the Bells. Do they keep every penny they charge you for your connection as they squeeze your suppliers and raise the costs of providing you the customer with services. Of course they do.

The best solution for the nation would be for the FCC to disallow such a radical and unfair change in the basic nature of the internet. --A principle called common carriage is fundamental to the way the net has always worked. Common carriage forbids discriminating against particular users or providers. I wish I was as confident as the Register that this is what Martin wants to affirm. As I read it he is only very carefully saying that he is against "blocking" sites--locking you and I out of sites belonging to voice competitors for instance. He hasn't said he is against prioritizing favored services. And that is what BellSouth and the other telcos are asking for.

The other, local, solution is to own the last mile pipes yourself so that no one can mess with you in this way. That's what we're trying to do here in Lafayette. The old-fashioned word is "independence."

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