Doubtless everyone has heard that the FCC approved the merger of Bellsouth with AT&T, and AT&T has moved ahead with accomplishing that, with various implications for cellphone carrier branding, repatriating jobs that are outsourced, etc.
Some of the provisions are interesting, for example, for a year starting summer 2007 AT&T will give out a free DSL modem to anyone willing to switch from dialup to DSL. On the one hand it’s good to see some U.S. carrier finally doing what Softbank did five or more years ago in Japan. On the other hand, without dialup, you have even less choices than you did before for ISPs.
But what does it mean for net neutrality? Ars Technica thinks it’s good, because of last-minute net neutrality concessions from the corporate merger candidates, and quotes a prominent net neutrality backer:
Professor Tim Wu, writing for Savetheinternet.com, praises the neutrality provisions, but he does note that they are not total. "The agreement does not prevent AT&T from treating different media carried on the Internet differently," he says, "so long as the carrier does not discriminate between who is providing the content. AT&T, under this agreement, may speed all the Internet video traffic on its network (to compete, for example, with cable). But it cannot pick and choose whose video traffic to speed up. In short, AT&T must treat like traffic alike– that is the essence of the agreement."
AT&T agrees to strong network-neutrality provisions, by Nate Anderson, 29 Dec 2006
Prof. Wu also notes that these provisions don’t apply to AT&T’s longhaul IP infrastructure (only to its first and last mile infrastructure); they don’t apply to IPTV; and they only last for two years or until Congress passes a net neutrality act.
And one of those exceptions could be a big loophole.
It’s my impression that IPTV is all AT&T actually cares about regarding net neutrality, because they think centralized video content is where the revenue will be, and where new bandwidth will be needed. It seems someone agrees with me:
Dave Burstein, who knows more about DSL than probably just about anyone, lets us know that the fine print in the deal actually may negate the network neutrality premise. The wording is a little tricky, but while they agree not to remove network neutrality from their standard network, hidden in the middle of a later paragraph is this sentence: "This commitment also does not apply to AT&T/BellSouth’s Internet Protocol television (IPTV) service." At first that might seem innocuous, but Burstein has pointed out that AT&T’s always planned on using the IPTV network as that high-speed toll lane it wants Google, Vonage and others to pay extra for. Burstein notes that AT&T isn’t even set up to put quality of service on their existing network — so the agreement not to violate network neutrality on that network is effectively meaningless. It is, he claims, a sleight of hand that successfully fooled a bunch of people into supporting the deal, and will probably help it get approval. AT&T promises not to violate network neutrality on a network they never intended to use that way, and carves out permission to use it on their new network, where they had planned all along to set up additional tollbooths.
Also, in response to the original post, the details show that the naked DSL they’re promising is limited to only 768k down, which is pretty slow these days. It’s also worth noting that they don’t say a damn thing about upstream speeds (as is the fashion these days), which means it’s probably down around 128k. Again, Burstein points out that at such an upstream speed, VoIP tends not to work very well — so for those who want naked DSL because they plan to just use VoIP instead of a phone line, AT&T may have just made that more difficult (I will say, personally, though, that I’ve been able to use VoIP at 128k, but it does break up if anyone else is doing anything on the network). However, after looking through the fine print, it certainly looks like the "concessions" AT&T agreed to aren’t very big concessions at all.
Along with IPTV they’ll of course have to have some explanatory information, which will be presented as web pages, and some interactive forums, which will probably support electronic mail and IM. In other words, nothing in this agreement prevents AT&T from setting up a toll road just like they wanted.
In case anybody’s forgotten, in Japan you can get DSL at 50Mbps down, and FTTH at 100Mbps. I repeat my prediction that one likely way we’ll ever get real fast broadband in the states is when NTT sells FTTH to us.
Meanwhile, we end up with AT&T reassembled in 22 out of 50 states, In 1984, just after the divestiture of the old AT&T we had seven Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs). As recently as 2003, we had five. Now we have three. And in any given region, the average Internet customer is now down to only two choices: the telephone company, or the cable company. This is not a competitive market environment. This is an environment in which we need either government-enforced net neutrality or more competition. Either would be good risk management.