Medium Is Message at conference uses an online chat group to get across its "freedom to connect" point.

On the first day of the Freedom2Connect conference outside Washington on April 3, the medium truly was the message.

The message: It is vital to American democracy that users retain the freedom to connect to the Internet, which must remain unfettered by any discriminatory policies imposed by the large telephone or cable companies in charge of the network.

The medium: an online chat group open to all in-person and remote conference-goers, with a real-time transcript of the chat projected onto a huge screen behind panelists heads in the conference room.

This is not your fathers telecom conference.

Held in one of the three theaters at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Md., the conference is sponsored by VOIP (voice-over-IP) pioneer Attendees enter and leave sessions to the live musical accompaniment of a supremely talented fiddler named Joe, who wears a black beret with a tassel.

While it is not uncommon at telecom trade shows to see attendees pull out their laptops as they settle into their seats, attendees at the show can be seen setting up their laptop stands before pulling out their laptops.

Likening "freedom to connect" to freedom of speech or freedom of the press, the conference sponsors and several guest speakers set the stage, asserting that nondiscriminatory content delivery is critical not only to the Internet economy but also to the American way of life.

"Our communications system, and our democracy, is at a crossroads," said Jeff Chester., executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Charging that the large network operators, namely AT&T and Verizon Communications, intend to slow down content delivery and implement policy-based routing, Chester said that Internet innovators must challenge those powerful interests.

"Their version for the future is the past," he said. "We have to have a loud cry [saying to them], 'It is not your pipes."

Municipal wireless networks were frequently cited as offering promise for continued democratic access to the Internet. Dewayne Hendricks, CEO of the Dandin Group, said that as the cost of bandwidth falls and as Wi-Fi hardware becomes less expensive and more efficient, municipal wireless networks will be able to stand up to the large network operators.

"Wireless now is going to be a competitive threat to the cableco and the telco," Hendricks said. "Were the rebel alliance. Wireless is the wild card. Lets play it."

Asserting that the freedom to connect is ingrained in the American way of life, Rick Ringel, director of engineering at Inter-Tel, said that the principles of identity, mobility and innovation mirror the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

The chatters, meanwhile, offered their opinions, questions and suggestions, which scrolled on the big screen behind the speakers, often amounting to the visual equivalent of heckling:

"Why are the speakers harping so much on community wireless?"

"What is the call to action from this talk?"

Some chatters engaged in peripheral discussions, such as a lengthy dialogue on the common nature of the name "Steve," while Gabriel G and Jerry M bantered in Spanish about their shared experience living in Argentina.

/zimages/1/28571.gifFor more on the "power to the people" format used at the conference, read Caron Carlsons blog entry.

When the topic in the theater turned to pending federal legislation that may include principles on network neutrality, one chatter offered that Congressman Joe "Barton is the new Tauzin," referring to the former House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman and well-known friend to the Bell telephone companies, Billy Tauzin, R-La.

Several speakers urged conference-goers to become more active in lobbying members of Congress, complaining that lawmakers do not understand what is at stake in the Net neutrality debate.

When Cynthia de Lorenzi, former CEO of the ISP, visits staffers on Capitol Hill, she said her efforts are often dismissed because the topic seems too complex.

"I get this look [from staffers that says], 'Ive made up my mind, please do not confuse me with the facts because theyre very confusing," de Lorenzi said.

Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, said he has gone to about 100 meetings on Capitol Hill over the past three months, and he often gets the same reaction. One staffer told him that he does not understand Net neutrality and therefore will advise his boss to stay away from it, Scott said.

"We have a major education to do on Capitol Hill when it comes to the key issues of the Internet," he said.

That opinion was largely affirmed by four legislative aides participating as panelists. Dana Lichtenberg, legislative assistant to Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said her boss wouldnt consider the legislation "ripe" yet.

Michael Copps, one of the two Democratic commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, said that it is critical that policy-makers establish effective Net neutrality rules. Allowing the network operators to charge large content providers a fee for premium delivery could result in a "Balkanized Internet," he said.

"The more concentrated that our facility providers grow, the more they have the possibility, and perhaps the incentive, to work as gatekeepers," Copps said. "We cannot let that happen."

/zimages/1/28571.gif Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.