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AT&T: Nothing neutral about this network

The acquisition of BellSouth by AT&T, formerly SBC Communications, is bad for the network neutrality movement and bad for the customer.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor

I remember when AT&T tried to build the Internet. Anyone who thinks it's perfectly benign for AT&T to acquire BellSouth, reassembling the majority of the pre-1984 divestiture AT&T, should stop and consider the impact of the deal on the politics of network neutrality.

From 1993 through about 1996, when it gave up its ambitions to construct an alternative network and protocol set, AT&T spent billions trying to displace the IP-based Internet. It invested in General Magic, It will be 1984 all over, again, with a telecom behemoth calling the shots at the FCC and in Congress.which had its own networking protocol and a scripting language that was tied to AT&T billing services. It tried to introduce "interactive television" that was, basically, cable with an AT&T protocol. The idea, at every step, was to corral as much traffic into AT&T-controlled circuits and APIs so that the company could bill for virtually anything that happened on its network. And by "its network," AT&T wanted to mean the Internet.

The $65-billion acquisition of BellSouth, announced over the weekend, will raise the stakes for telecommunications lobbyists who are trying to get Congress to impose new laws that allow carriers to bill for different kinds of traffic at different rates, known as "tiered pricing." According to the carriers and an increasingly servile business press, this is just good business sense: People should pay more for certain bandwidth-hogging services. Bad people, those greedy customers!

But tiered pricing is just another way for the carriers to get around the needs of their customers. Instead of building additional capacity in the last-mile so that there is greater market for rich content and services that use bandwidth, the carriers want to impose extra costs upfront, which will prevent the introduction of many independently owned services. Instead, content and service providers will be forced to negotiate with carriers, sacrificing a share of their revenues before they even get a chance to test the market—Google, for example, is fighting this battle with AT&T now.

When lobbyists for the expanded AT&T show up in Washington DC, pockets bulging with cash and claiming that the jobs of tens of thousands of Americans are at risk if AT&T isn't given the power to impose tiered pricing, supplemented with a healthy dose of Texas-style crony power (for SBC is headquartered in San Antonio), the dominoes of resistance to tiered pricing will fall. A reborn "natonal carrier" would, in this competitive world, need to be nurtured, the argument would go, as it did before AT&T was broken up.

It will be 1984 all over, again, with a telecom behemoth calling the shots at the FCC and in Congress, trying to hold the rest of us back lest we find ways to communicate without paying AT&T for the privilege.

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