Google/Verizon: Will a parallel non-Internet help?

A lot of what the bloggers have been saying is way off the mark, but there are plenty of real reasons to discuss the proposal

In spite of the fact that the net neutrality proposal that Google and Verizon published on Aug. 9 was not much like what the rumor mill predicted as late as the day before, the proposal sure has kicked off a lot of controversy.

As normal, a lot of what the bloggers have been saying is way off the mark, but there are plenty of real reasons to discuss the proposal.

The start of the proposal reads just like many a pro net neutrality screed. It basically supports the FCC's 2005 net neutrality policy statement. In fact, most of the proposal can be seen as quite pro net neutrality, at least within specific environments.

Google-Verizon net neutrality plan raises more questions than it answers

There are few litigation-attracting wording suggestions in the proposal. For example, one would block discrimination only if it "causes meaningful harm to competition or to users." Clearly the view of what would constitute "meaningful harm" would not be consistent across all viewers of a situation.

The three biggest areas of controversy are the proposals to exempt "wireless broadband" and "additional online services" from the net neutrality regulations and the limits on the FCC's rulemaking authority.

The proposal exempts wireless broadband because it is "competitive and still-developing" but does not give a reason to exempt additional online services, nor does it provide a reason to make it so the FCC could not make the rules it would be charged with enforcing.

It appears from the discussion on the Google corporate blog posting that tries to refute some of the blogosphere's assertions of evil in the proposal that Google and Verizon mean cellular wireless, not Wi-Fi when they refer to "wireless broadband." If this is the case, then Google and Verizon are in error when they say that wireless is "competitive", at least, to use their word, competitive in a meaningful way. To be meaningfully competitive, a users have to be able to switch providers if they feel they will get a better deal with another. Users cannot do this in today's wireless networks with anti-competitive handset lock-ins  and large termination fees.

The idea that ISPs can offer "additional online services" is not all that new. I have Comcast Internet service at home. Comcast provides an additional service, cable TV, over the same physical infrastructure. At this point the two services are easily distinguishable, one runs over the Internet Protocol and the other does not. Things will get much harder to distinguish when Comcast moves to provide its video or telephone service over IP. The proposal says that the exempt additional services must be "distinguishable in purpose and scope" from Internet access but that is a very slippery slope to stand on for long. I can get video service over the Internet today. It's not clear how a Comcast video service would be "distinguishable in purpose and scope" from what I can get today (unless Comcast limits the video to their own servers and thus claims the service is different in scope). This proposal looks to me like Google and Verizon want to authorize a non-Internet in parallel to the Internet, a non-Internet in name and regulation only, and that is not good for anyone other than the carriers. (see "It's the Internet Stupid".)

A lot of the blogosphere, as well as the traditional press, reacted to this proposal as if Google and Verizon have full authority to define final rules. It does help to focus the discussion, and that is a good thing, but it is only a proposal. It is now up to Congress, the FCC and the public (that is you and me) to have the discussion that, in the fullness of time, may (not will) result in actual regulations.

Disclaimer: Harvard understands the fullness of time better than most organizations, being, for example, almost 300 years older than the FCC. But I know no one at the university predicting the outcome of this process, thus, the above review is my own.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.

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Scott Bradner

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