On the Agenda: Net Neutrality

Congressional hearing to tackle priority content delivery.

This week, U.S. Senators plan to delve into the slippery subject of network neutrality, which everyone in the country is in favor of—as long as each person can define it on his or her own terms.

The principle of net neutrality generally holds that network owners should remain neutral with respect to the content they carry. The three largest network operators—the RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies)—have voiced support for the principle, while their top executives have suggested over recent months that large content providers should pay a premium for priority use of the networks. The suggestions have come from BellSouth, AT&T (known as SBC Communications until SBC merged with AT&T last year) and Verizon Communications, which recently bought MCI.

The notion of a priority content delivery system, in which service-quality levels are guaranteed only at a price, is sounding alarm bells for user rights activists and free speech advocates. Charging that a multitiered Internet would force users to pay twice for online content and that access to some sites could end up being impaired, the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and the Free Press are calling on Congress to enact net neutrality legislation.

The Bell companies insist that nobody is talking about impairing Internet content.

"We have had a [revenue-sharing] agreement with Yahoo for three to four years now," said Michael Balmoris, spokesperson for AT&T, in Washington. "Just because we have an arrangement with Yahoo doesnt mean the consumer will be somehow inhibited from reaching other Web sites and content on the Internet."

AT&T also has an agreement with Movielink to enhance Movielinks video delivery, and such arrangements would make sense for online gaming or any other broadband-intensive application provider, Balmoris said.

While actual content blocking may not be looming, critics argue that a multitiered Internet could mean untenable access to Web sites that refuse to pay for guaranteed service levels.

"I think the more appropriate word is choking," said Lee Selwyn, president of Economics and Technology, in Boston. "If you dont pay them, theyre in a position to not allow the content to be delivered at high speeds."

So far, Bell officials are framing the notion of priority delivery as applying to companies that provide online content as a core business, arguing that high-bandwidth users should help pay to upgrade the networks that enable their profits.

With widespread broadband deployment and increasing capacity available, critics question the need for prioritization and the need for the Bells to seek additional revenues to upgrade their networks.

"The suggestion that these companies arent paying for their use of the Internet is not true. When Amazon.com or ABC News.com signs up, they are buying very large bandwidth pipes," Selwyn said. "The only time you have to prioritize is if youre in a condition of scarcity. We have the technology to have all the fiber-optic capacity that you could possibly want and then some."

Representatives of large enterprises say that if the concept of priority content delivery takes root, it could have an impact not only on large content providers but also on just about any business with a Web site.

"This is something the commercial sector generally should be concerned about. The net neutrality debate really is going to be about getting access to the eyeballs [of customers]," said James Blaszak of the law firm Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby, in Washington. "If I pay for the loop that gets me access to the network, why is it that someone who wants to send me something should also pay?"

A multitiered delivery approach could also give the Bells leverage to press for revenue-sharing arrangements, Blaszak said.

"What if they say, To get to your customers for you to sell your wares, we want a share of your revenues?" asked Blaszak, who added that he is not currently representing any companies on the net neutrality issue.