SAN JOSE, Calif.—Qwest Communications CEO Richard Notebaert on March 15 voiced his companys commitment to “net neutrality,” saying his company would never block traffic or degrade network performance as a way to maintain competitive advantage.
But with the next breath Notebaert said that government regulation shouldnt prevent service providers from negotiating “commercial agreements” that allow them to deliver different types or grades of service at a specific price. The market should be allowed to determine how it will package and charge for network services, he said.
“My job has never been to degrade service or to give any customers less capability than they asked for and paid for,” Notebaert said, speaking at the VON (Voice Over Network) Spring Conference here.
However, Notebaerts position raised questions in the audience about Qwests commitment to net neutrality if these commercial agreements might tend to restrict the public access or raise the cost of accessing Internet services or content.
The concept of net neutrality has become an issue of increasing debate and concern in recent years as users seek guarantees they will have ready access to the global Internet unfettered by government censorship or by unreasonable service charges imposed by service providers driven by the profit motive.
This has raised calls for Congress to pass legislation that would protect net neutrality and for the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to enact and enforce policies that prevent services providers from blocking traffic or imposing new fees for Internet access.
But Jeffrey Pulver, founder and chairman of Pulvermedia, the host of the Spring 2006 VON Conference, said Qwests approach amounted to nothing less than “payola” for access to Internet content and services.
Paying for different Internet service levels would eventually cause the “Balkanization” of the Internet in which users would have limited access to different classes of content or quality of service based upon their ability or willingness to pay.
This would occur just as users are getting access to more sophisticated services, such as voice and video, he noted.
He said he didnt believe that Internet users would accept any business policy or service-level agreements that limit their access to Internet content.
Over the past year, VOIP Service provider Vonage Holdings and other VOIP service providers have complained that some high-speed Internet service providers were blocking its IP telephone traffic.
Notebaert said that both the market and government regulators will be quick to censure or even fine service providers that go as far as to block Internet traffic on the grounds that it might tend to degrade network performance or post a competitive challenge.
He also noted that the FCC had called him in on short notice to talk about the importance of reaching commercial agreements with other key services providers such as AT&T and MCI to ensure customers would have full access to network services across service provider boundaries.
Notebaert said the trip was “a lot of fun” because Qwest was able to report that it already had such agreements in place and that “Qwest is pleased to be on the side of commercial agreements.”
Net neutrality is about ensuring there is “no impediment for anybody to use the net,” he said. But it was “never intended to mean that your company cannot reach commercial agreements to provide you with services that enhance” your ability to serve customers, he said.
“I dont think that anyone should block traffic—that just shouldnt happen,” he said. At Qwest, “the idea of blocking isnt in our dictionary.”
But the concept of paying for premium services is a time-honored practice in business, he noted.
Negotiating commercial agreements for network services is no different than online fashion retailer LL Bean arranging with Federal Express to provide free overnight delivery for customers who order a certain amount of goods.
Its no different from businesses paying for toll-free 800 numbers to allow customers to call for service. Businesses are willing to pay the extra cost of 800 numbers to make it easier to do business with them.