Network Neutrality & Google's Openness Before The FCC

Google clearly wants the FCC to make sure that other private companies’ networks are open equally to all Internet services. Now, it will be interesting to see if that applies to networks in which Google is involved.

Google clearly wants the FCC to make sure that other private companies’ networks are open equally to all Internet services. Now, it will be interesting to see if that applies to networks in which Google is involved.

On Friday, the Commission takes up the question of whether Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest provider of high-speed access to the Internet, is “secretly degrading peer-to-peer applications,’’ as the FCC agenda puts it.

As Multichannel News reports, Google Inc. is pressing the Commission to provide clear guidance to broadband network owners on acceptable ways of managing Internet traffic.

The push comes from Johanna Mikes Shelton, who used to be the legal advisor of Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, and is now public policy counsel aka lobbyist for Google.

In a one-paragraph letter, she notes she had a phone conversation with her former boss last Friday (July 25) and that Google, that great beneficiary of a free and open Internet, wants government guidance and “clarity” on what kind of “protocol-agnostic” network management practices are acceptable under the FCC’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement.

Of course, we should all beware of encouraging FCC intervention in the Internet at all, as the Wall Street Journal was wont to point out this morning. That can start the network of networks down a pretty slippery digital slope.

Comcast, of course, came under attack last year for putting brakes on BitTorrent traffic, trying to keep so-called bandwidth hogs sharing big video files from blocking or degrading the speed of service it could provide to the great majority of customers who typically have much less bandwidth-intensive uses (like site surfing and e-mail exchange).

But that Comcast-BitTorrent fracas got settled and Comcast moved on to “protocol-agnostic” means of managing its network. Meaning: It would regulate volume of traffic, as needed, but not the type of traffic. No particular application would be disadvantaged.

Meantime, Google and Comcast become pals, too. They invested in Clearwire, the 4G mobile communications network being championed by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw.

This is a network that expects to leap past the 2.5G and 3G networks that Apple and the iPhone use, via AT&T. In fact, Clearwire chief strategy officer Scott Richardson, in June made this clear:

Steve Jobs delivered and announced the 3G iPhone the other day and he talked about a real usage example. He was on stage, he did a download of the National Geographic website and he compared the 2.5G network of the current iPhone and downloaded that page and it took 59 seconds. So you think of that’s a long time. He did the 3G download and it took 21 seconds. So it’s really half the time. It’s faster. But if you think about it, you really don’t wait 21 seconds for a webpage at home. So we ran out and the network in Portland did a download and it took us four seconds with our network. And we think we have opportunity to actually improve on that.

Google and Comcast made “strategic investments” of $500 million and $1.05 billion, respectively, in Clearwire, which is combining its so-called WiMax assets with those of Sprint.

For its money, Google gets one-click access to its mobile search service on “select new devices” from Sprint. Sprint’s customers also will have “easier access” to Google Maps, YouTube videos and other Google services as the companies announced in May.

Indeed, Google appears to be paying for preferential placement on 4G phones. As noted in the Multichannel News’ piece, George Mason University law economics professor Thomas Hazlett wrote in Financial Times:

Google’s search engine gets its own button on the phones, a cute efficiency copied from the wildly popular DoCoMo network in Japan.

And an “efficiency” that usually entails payments by the mobile app provider to the carrier.

But does that matter, so much as the preferential presentation of Google services on a supposedly neutral 4G network?

Somehow, it would not surprise me to see Google itself on the hot seat a year from now, with the FCC on its "net neutrality" agenda, or, worst case, the Department of Justice and its antitrust version. A decade ago, Microsoft got itself in trouble with the DOJ for strong-arm tactics with suppliers of personal computers. It forced manufacturers to give a preferential placement on the screens of their PCs, if those same suppliers wanted to bundle Windows with their machines. The practice reshaped the browser business, with Internet Explorer becoming dominant and Netscape disappearing.

Today, Google already dominates the search field, so there won’t be the same short of reshaping. And it is paying for its prominence, not forcing the issue through bundling or strong-arm tactics.

Still, prominence matters. And the squeeze will be on Google's competitors (including, of course, Microsoft). Sure, people could have replaced Internet Explorer with Netscape, on the PCs they bought. But most didn’t. Making changes to the way the Internet is presented to them is not something that every day users tend to mess with.

So, even if you buy your way to prominence, the debate that ought to be forthcoming when Clearwire is up and running is whether the neutrality of the Internet experience disappears in the 4G environment that will be pushed not just by Comcast, but Google. Oh, and the Clearwire "ecosystem" also includes Time Warner Cable, Intel, Samsung, Motorola and Nokia.

Interestingly, the FCC hasn’t criticized Comcast for favoring any of its Internet services, such as the Fancast online video services guide or its YouTube rival, Ziddio, in the way its managed its Internet network or provided Internet access service.

But if you come in through a Sprint portal or a Clearwire portal on the new venture’s 4G phones, you most likely will be seeing the Internet through Google’s eyes.

Google says the network is open and Clearwire will only “engage in reasonable and competitively-neutral network management.”

But, from a practical standpoint, is it “competitively-neutral” if the managers of the network favor one of their partners to be the door that customers open to enter the Internet?