Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Failing broadband policies a threat to innovation

The debate around network neutrality remains a hot topic of discussion among telecom companies and service providers. Vint Cerf, Vice President of Google, regards the lack of regulation a threat to innovation.

When Mr. Cerf and his colleagues at Stanford University built the foundation for today’s Internet back in the 1970s’, they built it as an open environment that would be accessible to anyone. The past 20 years have seen a transformation of the Internet and how people access it, from dial-up telephone modems to different types of broadband connections, either by cable, DSL, satellite or fiber.

“Many broadband suppliers suppress what should be an open media,” says Cerf. “Not only will that suppress open expression, but it will also suppress innovation. If you have to work in arrangement with every Internet service supplier in the world in order to try out your new service, it will essentially suppress the ability to invent and innovate in the Internet.”

A number of companies, including Google, became quite alarmed when the former head of AT&T, Ed Whitaker, said, “companies like Google are getting a free ride and are not paying me for their use of my broadband channels to my customers.”

“Today there is a lack of competition in broadband which makes it possible for the party that controls the physical access to the Internet to favor that company’s applications”, says Cerf.

That’s not the business model Cerf and his colleagues had in mind when they started the net.

“So when Mr. Whitaker made his assertion a number of us begun to see the potential for very biasing decisions on the part of the broadband providers of things that were very antithetical to the interests of the consumers”, says Cerf.

In the last few years emotions have been running high in the American telecom business as Congress debates whether a law should be passed saying you must not discriminate among the application providers. Suppliers of broadband promise they will not favor their own services over others, but treat everyone essentially the same.

“After the telecoms and cable companies asserted in hearing that they would never interfere with someone else’s traffic, it was discovered that Comcast was analyzing the traffic that was flowing on their broadband channels”, says Cerf. “Anyone who was running bit torrent was shut down. I don’t blame them for wanting to control the traffic, but they chose a method to do it that was chilling because it implied that someone who controls the underlying transport could decide what traffic could flow and what traffic could not flow on the basis on what kind of traffic it was.”

Cerf likens broadband access to other critical infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water:

“In other parts of the world it is recognized that this is basic infrastructure and there may not be a natural ability to put in competitive, alternative physical facilities. In the United States facility-based competition has been the mantra of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for some time now and frankly I don’t believe it works. And in the absence of that we have to create the regulatory framework that says you cannot take advantage of your carriers to interfere with applications.”

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