Network Neutrality: The PR blitz is underway

An Associated Press article touting the benefits of tiered services is just the beginning of a campaign to obliterate network neutrality and impose different pricing on application-specific packets.

Fat cats leave a bare tableThe network neutrality war is just starting to heat up. A campaign to make new fees for existing Internet services palatable is underway. At stake is the ability of the Internet to scale from the edges or a surrender and return to a telco-dominated network like the one that collapsed under open competition in the 1990s.

The Associated Press reports today that "carriers are 'under tremendous pressure' from customers to provide more reliable services" and gives prominent voice to the idea that the most efficient Tiered services would make data services pricing a complex Chinese menu and isolate many homes and businesses in narrowband backwaters.way to do that is for tiered pricing to be introduced by carriers. This would result in different billing levels for data packets based on the payload they carry, an idea would-be movie mogul Mark Cuban has been evangelizing. Real-time communications, like VoIP service, would be more expensive than email packets, which can take their millitime getting to destination.

The AP obiligingly reports that carriers must "recover the cost for building the new capacity out there" while allowing the carriers to dismiss concerns that voice, video and other data services that don't pay a premium to them will be blocked. Of course, the carriers are seeking precisely that capability in another rewriting of U.S. telecommunication law.

Capping off the article, the opposition to tiered pricing, represented by Ben Scott of Free Press, is heard to say: "It's very rational behavior in the industry. I would do the same thing if I was paid by my shareholders. But rational market behavior doesn't necessarily mean good public service." Alas, in this particular context the quote suggests he's just a dreamer with impossible ideas.

"Gosh, those carriers are only being reasonable," is the only conclusion a reader can reach when reading the story. 

Tiered services would make data services pricing a complex Chinese menu and would isolate many homes and businesses in narrowband backwaters. This is the carriers' new holy grail, the ability to milk more from their already crappy services.

Instead of embracing the need to upgrade carriage generally in order to justify higher fees, the telcos are seeking to turn IP-based services such as VoIP and video downloads that compete with their voice and video services into subsidies that offset the weakness of their current business models, which tie connectivity to voice and other services. In David Isenberg's words, we don't need a telecommunications law that helps these companies survive despite their inefficiency, the U.S. must let them fail faster. [Disclosure: I was a signatory of the "fail faster" letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell.]

Tim Karr of the media reform group Net Freedom Now suggests the network neutrality battle has already been won by carriers, as some Congressional delegates with close ties to telcos are poised to remove provisions in the upcoming Telecommunications Act that would prevent carriers from imposing tiered pricing. You can change that by contacting your Congressional delegation and demanding network neutrality be the foundation for U.S. telecom policy.

The chorus of pro-carrier voices is rising, most of them suckling at the teat of the industry in the form of policy mills. 

The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based group that advocates "free-market solutions to social and economic problems," in an editorial by Sonia Arrison of the Pacific Research Institute, a "free-market think tank" is taking When regulation favors industry, it is still regulation, yet these advocates of a "free market" are seeking legislative support for an industry's pricing models.the side of carriers, saying: "Companies should be allowed to choose the business model that works best in a market economy, and partisans of regulation should re-evaluate their stance."

Interestingly, it is "regulation" even though the legislation would prevent new complexity from being added to the fee structures. When regulation favors industry, it is still regulation, but these advocates of a "free market" are seeking legislative support for an industry's pricing models that aren't responsive to the market's clear signal that network neutrality is the most desirable approach.

It's good to see Google's Vint Cerf leading a charge on behalf of Web services developers, but we need to hear from the hardware manufacturers, too. If they don't take a public stand in support of the users' freedom of choice, they'll seal the deal in favor of tiered pricing for a share of the revenue—the hardware costs associated with introducing tiering services alone would provide a small fortune to router developers.

All signs are not good. The propaganda is starting to flow. Call Congress now. Call your carrier and tell them you'll find another provider if they introduce tiered service, but that you'd happily pay for more reliable high-speed services rather than more for slices of the same old service.

UPDATE: Doc Searls delves deep into the spin and framing of the network neutrality argument.

UPDATE, TOO: David Isenberg's F2C: Freedom to Connect conference, in April, will be a forum for turning up the pressure on carriers and legislators.