RealTime IT News

Network Neutrality Foes Square Off For FTC

WASHINGTON -- There isn't much hope that the two sides of the network neutrality debate will find any common ground at a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) workshop on the issue.

The session served as little more than a demonstration that both sides are operating from entrenched positions, and unwilling to concede a single point.

Or, as FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras lamented in her opening remarks, "There is a lack of constructive debate [on network neutrality]…There are too many sound bites."

Majoras got little else Tuesday morning in the opening session of a two-day conference designed to examine competition and consumer protection issues relating to broadband Internet access. Panelists hewed to their standard talking points about network neutrality and preached to their respective choirs.

"There is no clear definition of network neutrality to determine if a real problem exists," said Robert Pepper, Cisco's senior managing director of global technology policy. He said efforts to force broadband carriers to treat all network traffic alike, particularly on pricing, would amount to "socializing the cost of the Internet."

Georgetown University professor J. Gregory Sidak, an economist and the other member of the four-person panel opposed to network neutrality laws, implied the network neutrality debate is just a pricing fight between content providers like Google and Yahoo and broadband carriers.

Both AT&T  and Verizon  have said they plan to charge application, content and service providers based on bandwidth consumption.

"Just follow the money," he said. "Network neutrality proponents don’t have a problem with end users paying for different levels of service. The fundamental conflict is between two business models."

Sidak added that there is "prima facia evidence of a competitive [broadband] market" and, because of that, there is no reason for government intervention in the market.

Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of the Internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, and Christopher Libertelli, Skype's senior director of government and regulatory affairs, both grimly smiled and shook their heads as Pepper and Sidak made their presentations.

"This is not about charging consumers for higher levels of access. It's not about being a dumb pipe. We just don't want carriers to discriminate against competing services," Sohn said. "Let's just bury this idea this is about what Skype does or Google  does."

Sohn and other network neutrality proponents fear the cable and telephone companies that provide broadband access for most Americans will use their power to cut deals favoring one provider of a service like VoIP  over another.

"Cable and telephone companies are still the dominant carriers," she said, dismissing Sidak's argument of a competitive broadband market. "This is fundamentally about last mile competition. We are so far away from a competitive market it's not worth talking about."

Skype's Libertelli underscored Sohn's point by noting that 95 per cent of all Americans buy their broadband from cable or telephone companies. He also said that, absent a network neutrality law, consumers should be worried about where the next Skype or Google will come from.

"Skype is a software company," Libertelli said. "We believe our product helps stimulate demand for broadband. Network neutrality will protect our users' ability to connect to each other over broadband. We think network neutrality is not about locking out the next innovator."

Pepper and Sidak, of course, disagreed.

"Differential treatment of network traffic does not have to equal discrimination," Pepper said. "Network neutrality regulations could limit network functionality. Our current laws are adequate without someone showing a demonstrable problem."

Sidak characterized the debate as an "increasing conflict between network operators and application providers."

The workshop continues Wednesday with representatives from EarthLink , Verizon, Comcast , eBay  and the Consumers Union all scheduled to present their views, along with advocacy groups like the Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Media Access Project.

Noted communications academics Timothy Woo of Columbia University and Vanderbilt's Christopher Yoo will also serve on various panels discussing network neutrality.