Should AT&T Support Net Neutrality?

April 9th, 2010 by rubenr

There’s been a lot of talk on Net Neutrality this week after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down it’s decision in Comcast’s lawsuit against the FCC. Basically, the court denied the FCC the ability to enforce Net Neutrality regulations which prevented Internet Service Providers from discriminating amongst user traffic. At the same time, long-time net neutrality foe AT&T announced that they’re introducing a new product: mini-cell phone towers. You install these in your home and they let you place cell phone calls and access 3G services over your home broadband internet connection. The towers are targeted towards those who live in rural areas, or those in areas where iPhone service is overwhelmed/spotty. Apparently Verizon also has a similar product.

While some people have been criticizing this move as a way of “double charging” customers who already pay substantial amounts for cell phone service, it’s actually a pretty neat innovation to solve the over-capacity or rural area problem. It’s also exactly the sort of innovation that a neutral network can foster that a prioritized/discriminating one can’t. For example, now that Comcast has defeated the current FCC net neutrality regime, it might find that it’s in it’s own interests to throttle or block traffic from AT&T or Verizon mini-towers. What greater disincentive to developing this sort of technology would there be than the chilling effect of knowing that one of your largest competitors can block you whenever they choose?

So, does this mean AT&T’s going to jump on the Net Neutrality bandwagon? Probably not. The telecom industry still likely has more to gain by leveraging their network power to land prioritized contracts through network discrimination than it does from the mini-cell-phone tower market, particularly given it’s entrenched user base. That said, we might begin to see a fracture amongst the alliance between providers like AT&T and Verizon from the cable-centric telecoms like Comcast. The new mini-tower products also poke a hole in one of the telecom’s biggest arguments against Net Neutrality: that they need to discriminate in order to offer quality-of-service for voice services.  AT&T boasts that the 3G / Cell mini-towers work fine and won’t be a drain on the network. That’s refreshing.

With the FCC grasping at how to maintain the net neutrality status quo, we’re likely going to see some movement in congress to pass some net neutrality legislation (perhaps as part of some larger overhaul of our out-dated telecom regs). If we do, the main components I’d want addressed are: 1) that networks not discriminate according to the content or source of traffic [except for blocking attacks from hackers and the like] and 2) that if telecoms want to provide quality-of-service, the consumer gets to decide what they’d like QoS on (whether that be VoIP, Gaming, Video Streaming, etc.) and not the telecoms.

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