Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate

Some of the loudest voices in the network neutrality debate squared off at a Senate hearing Tuesday morning as Congress considers overhauling sections of the Telecom Act of 1996. (See Net Neutrality Goes to Washington.)

Both the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are now drafting legislation that would rewrite large sections of the 1996 Act.

The net neutrality issue centers on the common carriage responsibilities of broadband providers in an age when more and fatter IP services are being pushed down the broadband pipe to the consumer. (See LR Poll: Net 'Squatters' Should Pay.)

Some in Congress believe new laws are needed requiring broadband services providers (the telcos and the cable MSOs) to reserve equal bandwidth for competing services provided by the likes of Vonage and Google. (See Google Says No to QOS Fees.)

“Even as we welcome the deregulation of our telecommunications system, we must preserve some limited elements of openness and non-discrimination,” Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s “Chief Internet Evangelist,” Vinton Cerf, told the committee. “In this regard, Google supports tailored, minimally intrusive safeguards to promote net neutrality.” (See Google Goes to Wonkytown.)

Sitting side by side facing the committee members were Cerf, United States Telecom Association (USTelecom) CEO Walter McCormick, Vonage Holdings Corp. (NYSE: VG) CEO Jeffrey Citron, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) CEO Kyle McSlarrow, and Incompas CEO Earl Comstock.

“We need to preserve net neutrality for the interests of the next Google waiting to be born in some dorm room or garage,” Cerf added. Vonage’s Citron looked pleased.

The RBOCs were represented by their trade group, the USTA, and their message was simple. “We will not block, impair, or degrade content, applications in any way,” said USTA’s McCormick. He would repeat the remark nearly verbatim several times during the hearing.

Both McCormick and the NCTA’s McSlarrow said their member companies have spent billions aggressively building out their networks, and will continue doing so as long as the financial incentive isn't stripped away by new regulation.

“The issue here is whether or not Congress will enact new legislation that will leave little or no incentive to invest in new networks,” McSlarrow said. “[If you do] you will force networks to compete only on size and price.”

Comptel’s Comstock scoffed at the assertion, remarking that the network operators write off more in depreciation on their networks every year than they invest in them. (See QOS Fees Could Change Everything .)

At several points during the hearing, the cable and telephone companies -- which together control 98 percent of the broadband access lines in the U.S. -- were accused of creating a scarcity of Internet bandwidth so that competing IP services like Vonage get only what's left over.

McCormick repeated that this has not happened, insisting that many of the network neutrality horror stories being proposed were really just hypothetical problems -- “what-ifs” -- that haven’t really happened yet. (See New Telecom Bill Draws Raves.)

Citron, though, pointed out that his company was blocked by the carrier Madison River Communications , and has since been blocked by several smaller carriers. He said Vonage was forced to organize “workarounds” to remedy the problems, and in some cases wasn't able to offer service.

McCormick told the panel the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) already has the authority under current law to prevent network operators from discriminating against certain services running over their networks. “The Commission has made it clear that it has both the authority and the appetite to move swiftly to intervene.”

McCormick was probably referring to the Madison River incident, the only documented network neutrality foul committed by a network operator thus far. When Madison River blocked Vonage traffic on its broadband network, it was summarily slapped down by the FCC for its actions. (See Vonage Victorious in Blocking Case.)

Had the Madison River incident occurred after the Brand X decision, the FCC wouldn't have had the authority to slap Madison River's hand. (See Brand X Decision Stokes VOIP Worries.)

The Supreme Court's Brand X decision last year declared that cable networks are not “telecommunication networks” but rather “information services,” and thus their owners aren’t subject to many common carriage responsibilities. The FCC soon after released an order extending the courtesy to telco networks.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress appeared a bit confused over the nuances of the debate. The committee chair, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) compared broadband pipes to oil pipelines in his home state of Alaska. [Ed. note: Sen. Stevens, it should be noted, compares everything to oil pipelines.] Stevens at one point told Google’s Vinton Cerf, “You certainly have a wonderful search engine there.”

But the Senator has been around and has seen these debates before. He fretted during the hearing that if the Congress erred on net neutrality legislation, it would be a very slow process to “put the genie back in the bottle.”

The network neutrality issue is just one of many aspects of the Telecom Act that lawmakers are considering changing. Others include VOIP e911, CALEA, and the Universal Service Fund.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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dh44 12/5/2012 | 4:06:52 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate Why not have a QOS-based network with the lowest priority being Best Effort? As a compromise, why can't new government regulations require service providers to "reserve" a certain percentage of their network bandwidth to always be available for Best Effort. The remaining network BW could be allocated to higher QOS flows as SPs see fit.

Since most of QOS-based bandwidth will be consumed by IPTV in the near future, the portion reserved for Best Effort traffic should be relatively small. New regulations may need to require different scales of Best Effort bandwidth reservation depending on what part or type of network is being allocated.

stephencooke 12/5/2012 | 4:06:51 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate RJS,

"If I know that I will pay a hefty penalty for going over my limit, whether it is Mb/s download/upload or the max bytes transfered,
I - the end user will self-monitor."

The point that I was trying to make is that, when computers are involved, viruses and worms can be involved which nullifies, or at least makes it extremely difficult, for you to self-monitor. Spambots send out thousands of emails per host (bot) to all sorts of unsuspecting recipients. What if those bots set their traffic priority to be high? As there is likely to be a smaller traffic limit on high priority traffic that will cost extra, could it cause the consumer to incur additional penalties? A poor example but it illustrates the point.

wrobeljas 12/5/2012 | 4:06:49 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate Basically, right now I am paying for my broadband, and I am free to choose any service provider I want (including VoIP "parasites").

In the world from the telecom companies dream, I am offered good service only from the ones who paid my provider. My choice is limited. And may this QoS contracts be exclusive ?? (Vonage paying Verizon for QoS, and for not providing QoS to competitors...)

This is what already happened in game consoles world (games exclusive for one platform), is enforced in music industry (play songs from iTunes only on iPod) and right now is extended to the Internet-alike services world.

Sad but partially inevitable.
optodoofus 12/5/2012 | 4:06:48 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate Secret Squirrel,

I think you are looking at this issue all wrong. The issue here is that the ILECs and cable companies have (essentailly) monopoly power over the access infrastructure in this country. If they can institute pay-for-QOS, then they can use this to provide an advantage to their own services. So, suppose they developed their own search engine (fat chance of that, but let's pretend they can innovate). They can easily make sure that their search service gets great QOS at no additional cost to themselves. However, anyone who wants to go to Google will get poorer service - unless Google and/or the end user pay up. The economic impact of this will be to stifle competition and hence innovation on the Internet.

I would be all for IP QOS services as long as the ILECs and cable companies would agree to structural separation. Break the services piece of the ILEC/cable business out, and make the paying field level. This is essentially what the local loop unbundling process has done in Europe, and the amount of investment, competition and innovation this has spurred is amazing. But here we sit - with no competition and little hope of seeing any anytime soon. Allowing the ILECs and cable companies to tighten their monpoly positions by forcing Internet applications to pony up for QOS if they want to compete will just make the situation that much worse.

Chicknbut 12/5/2012 | 4:06:48 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate Way to go Ted. Sure, SONET pipes carrying IP is sort of like oil pipelines,but pure IP networks are sort of, like, different.

It's time some telecom savvy individuals run the FCC rather than sycophants, puppets and thirty-something booty kissers. While telecom policy may have been original based on railroad regualtion, the current model doesn't fit.

The RBOCs et al are pissed because they can't get at the real money at play here, that of content. Pipes, like the big and little iron that faciliates them, are a commodity. The money is in the content. While this has something to do with the Googles and Vonages of the world, I bet it has more to do with the Sonys and the Viacoms. The big cable players want to be able to transition their content to a different pipe without a loss of their insipid, monopolistic pricing, while BT (Big Telco) wants to make their own deals directly with content providers.

If Google beats them to it, the RBOC can't pay the salaries of the 2000 VP's and Sr VP's that work in their beautiful headquarters.

stephencooke 12/5/2012 | 4:06:47 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate Hi Tera,

Yes, there is nothing new under the sun! Large corporations will likely be more vigilant than smaller corporations and consumers. How many viruses limit their targets to large corporations do you think? I have no idea but I haven't heard of any, but we have all heard about lots of viruses.

You, tera, the consumer, may choose to pay for QoS from your provider to get streaming video or crystal clear VoIP service. You agree to pay for the amount that you feel you will use. Your carrier doesn't want to limit you to that so they give you a deal on what you think you will use but they put in what it will cost you when you exceed that amount (which is probably much higher in cost). Can you see it yet...? Your computer gets a virus that generates huge amounts of premium-level traffic putting you far beyond your self-imposed limits and you owe the carrier big bucks.

The point is that anyone with a broadband connection is now just as likely to be targetted in a scam such as this as a large corporation was for trunk hijacking in years past. As a consumer do you have the resources (ie: someone whose job it is to monitor and deal with these things) as a large corporation? Do you have the clout with a carrier to get around these things if/when they occur? Not likely, to both questions.

jmunn 12/5/2012 | 4:06:47 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate I think Google looked at what happened to the CLECs having to pay the ILECs for "better access" and saw that the CLECs had no control of the pricing. The ILECs raised the costs to the CLECs and shut them down.

If Google started paying X for QoS now, which might still be a good business model, there is nothing to stop the service provider from charging 10X for that same QoS later, probably not a sustainable model.

Remember the Past or Repeat It!
opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 4:06:47 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate Steve wrote:
"When things cost money...people will find ways to write viruses to use high-priced bandwidth that will leave unsuspecting consumers with nasty bills."

Hasn't that always been the case? There's nothing new here. I'm not an expert at PSTN, but I found a site that describes the same thing being done on T1 trunks:

So if companies start routing their traffic over IP rather than over switched T1 lines, they'll have exactly the same threat of someone trying to steal that pipe.

opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 4:06:46 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate I don't think that viruses would cost consumers with QoS becaus I don't think that that is how QoS will get sold.

Right now if I buy DSL from SBC, I can pay for a 1.5Mb/sec peak limit or a 3.0Mb/sec peak limit. Both are best effort, so in congested times they both may give the same rate--or SBC may give a slightly higher QoS to the 3.0Mb/sec links because the consumer is paying more. There's no extra cost if the consumer's virus ties up the line. There are some mobile broadband systems that charge like this but I don't know of any DSL offerings like this.

Another way of doing QoS is for certain services like IPTV or VOIP. For this, the CO would would recognize and control the traffic to your home. I suppose a virus could disguise itself as VOIP traffic, but there is nothing stopping a virus from doing that today and start making VOIP calls to Scotland from your PC.
telco1158 12/5/2012 | 4:06:45 AM
re: Cerf's Up for Neutrality Debate I think the "virus" that Stephen was illustrating was not the traditional virus that infects a system, but more of a bot to artificially drive up throughput on a user's network and thus increase costs. Something similiar to a DoS attack. There does exist something remotely akin to the hypothetical bandwidth fraud... Click Fraud, which affects the cost and payment of Internet advertising. Besides other factors, the cost of running an ad depends on the number of clicks the ad gets. Click fraud uses bots to artificially drive up the cost of a competitor's ad, or stuff the pockets of the advertising site. The reality of click fraud is debatable, but its been said to be the kink in Goog's armor.
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