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Convergence, Innovation Push Boundaries of Network Neutrality Debate, Experts Agree

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ARLINGTON, Va., June 19, 2009 - Representatives of network operators, internet companies and consumer advocates said they are prepared for a network neutrality policy to emerge from the Obama administration, but during a panel at Pike and Fischer's Broadband Policy Summit  they remained very much divided over the best approach to solving problems of network management while protecting consumers.

Convergence of content providers and network owners into "one overall internet ecosystem” raises questions that weren't present at the outset of previous network neutrality debates, said Phoenix Center President Lawrence Spiwak. While such arguments were once limited to whether backbone providers could charge popular website operators like Google or Amazon for preferential treatment, the debate has broadened to include network management, mobile handset exclusivity and mobile open access as "part of the net neutrality pie,” he said. But Spiwak cautioned that any policy should be designed with the primary goal of preventing anticompetitive behavior, regardless of scope.

AT&T Senior Vice President James Cicconi said the most pressing issue surrounding network neutrality is how business models can adapt to deal with spikes in internet use. Cicconi cited a Cisco study which predicts overall online traffic will grow from 9 to 56 exabytes per month by 2015. This rapid expansion is primarily driven by cloud computing and online video applications, and is moving "faster than anyone predicted,” he said.

Maintaining a quality user experience -- with the consistency users expect -- will require a careful balancing of needs between many different service and application providers, he said.

Network management problems could be sidestepped entirely by expanding the bandwidth available on long-haul and last-mile broadband pipes, vice president Paul Misner said. Discrimination only occurs when there is a scarcity of bandwidth -- and the market would not tolerate discrimination if it could be avoided. "When there is sufficient capacity, discrimination isn't possible.

Combining the industry's massive investment in capacity with government build-out efforts like the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program will not be enough to keep pace with demand, panelists agreed. And while price caps and tiered pricing systems so far have been met with resistance, a metered pricing scheme is probably inevitable:  “The economically efficient solution is to charge who is clogging the system,” Meisner said.

Cicconi took issue with consumer advocates who dismiss metering or caps as un-American, responding that protecting the majority of consumers is the goal of network management. "In any sort of limited capacity system, you've got to find a way to balance and make it fair to consumers."

The need for a new "fifth principle" in the Federal Communications Commission's Internet Policy Statement was also a subject of disagreement. And the enforcability of the statement remains at issue while Comcast's lawsuit against the FCC remains pending.  But any management regime needs "clarity and certainty” Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Vice Preside Mark Lloyd said. Without a clear set of rules, the industry will not be able to move forward and innovate, he said.

1 Comment

  1. The term “network neutrality” already has so many definitions that it effectively means nothing at all. So, why not drag anything and everything into it? How about health care? The war in Iraq? Swine flu? Apples? (After all, they’re part of the pie.)

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