BellSouth and Net neutrality…and LUS

Warning: this post is (even) longer and denser than the usual fare here. And it’s not as uncompromisingly local as most posts here are. Still, I think the issues raised are enough worth thinking about that I’m moved to urge you to give it a try…this is much of the reason I was so passionately involved in the fiber to the home referendum here in Lafayette.

BellSouth’s giving the rest of the country a little taste of what its been like in Louisiana over the last two years. I imagine they’ll find that taste pretty sour. According to a Washington Post story (Executive Wants to Charge for Web Speed) BellSouth’s William L. Smith, CTO, told the public yesterday:

an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.

With those words Smith and BellSouth are stepping into deep shit. There’s been a huge uproar on the internet over the last month concerning something being called “net neutrality.” I’ve made abortive stabs at writing up an overview for this site but haven’t quite got one posted.

The controversy that has blown up goes something like this: The owners of the wires into your house don’t much care for the open internet. They don’t believe the net should be neutral. They think it “unfair” that people who communicate with you over the service you pay for should be able to make money without cutting them in. Amazon, ebay, Skype…all those guys…they should pay BellSouth or AT&T a toll. –In addition to the toll you’ve already paid, it should be clearly understood. Please note that there’s no suggestion that you, the actual buyer, should get lower prices for connectivity from guys like BellSouth if they start extorting money from your suppliers. No, that’s not their point. They just want more money and its immaterial to them that the inevitable effect will be to raise the prices their customers pay. (“Customer relations?” you say.” What’s that?” says BellSouth.)

Not only is this a downright greedy idea, (hey you’ve gotten used to that haven’t you?) but its realization would also be the death of the open internet as we understand it now.

You remember the open internet, don’t you? It’s that quaint idea that you can communicate freely with anyone and that anyone can sell to you freely as a consequence. It presumes a “level playing field” without one provider having an advantage over another. Small companies compete on an equal footing with large ones and the barrier to entry for new ideas is very small. The huge creative and commercial ferment of the internet has been a direct product of a network originally designed to embody the open ideals of the scientific and academic communities…and net freedom has proven a good thing. (An Aside: You might recollect hearing about the idea of a level playing field somewhere before. BellSouth may not like the idea nationally but it likes the idea in Lafayette…where it can be used to disadvantage LUS.)

The companies that have thrived on the open internet are well aware of their peril, as is evidenced by their response to a recent federal bill that would compromise net neutrality.

“The incredible potential of broadband will be severely compromised if network operators are permitted to be the gatekeepers of the Internet, deciding what content, applications and services succeed or fail on the Internet,” wrote the coalition, which includes Inc., eBay Inc., Google and IAC/InterActive Corp.

The danger goes deeper than rapacious toll-keepers, however. BellSouth and its allies sell their own content and services. Skype and Vonage provide phone service. Cheaper phone service than BellSouth. That’s, how do we say it delicately, unpleasant for BellSouth to contemplate. Especially if the bits flow over its lines. (Looking at it as simply “their lines” only makes sense if BellSouth is able to conveniently ignore the fact that it has already sold that bandwidth once to you and me.) What’s a poor baby Bell to do? Either force Vonage to either pay a special toll to ensure a quality of connection equal to the one you sell with your own phone service or make sure Vonage can’t compete because their service is considerably poorer than yours. If Vonage don’t pay the toll their phone sputters while BellSouth’s purrs. Anti-competitive? Obviously. Public advocates see this clearly:

“Prioritization is just another word for degrading your competitor,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group. “If we want to ruin the Internet, we’ll turn it into a cable TV system” that carries programming from only those who pay the cable operators for transmission.

So far the discussion on the web has been mostly about the battle between big corporations and some discussion about the rather abstract ideals of net neutrality. But there’s been little discussion of this from the standpoint of the person who thinks they’ve bought bandwidth to use for their own purposes.

We are vaguely aware that you never really get the bandwidth that you pay for–that “5 megs” is “best effort” bandwidth–if they don’t have that much to push to you, you don’t get it. That’s been tolerable to date because, well it was best effort, sorta. They gave you what was available without twisting things to get you to use their or anyone’s services. Occasionally you’d even get what you paid for. If the Bell’s get their way that won’t be the case any more. That 5 meg package won’t any longer mean that you get their best effort up to 5 megs. It will mean that companies that pay the Bells will get the Bells best effort up to your 5 megs. You won’t get more bandwidth when using Vonage or Google if they have paid off BellSouth to make sure their competitors get less. If your chosen provider hasn’t paid the bribe you will only get what’s left over when the bandwidth big corporations and BellSouth itself have locked up to ensure their services are given first priority. That friends is the only way it can work. It’s not only that they will set up a situation in which Vonage’s or Google’s services are degraded relative to their own–it’s that they will have to make sure that you see a different between the “preferred” providers and all others within the service YOU have paid for to have anything to sell to Vonage or Google that is worth having. Any user who can’t see the difference between “premium providers” and “standard service” is a user that won’t be a customer for the higher-priced service that’s paid the toll to the Bells. The bandwidth providers must find a way to make sure you notice a difference or they will have nothing to sell.

It’s every bit as ugly as it sounds. They really do want to sell the bandwidth twice–to you and then again to favored service providers–and leave you, the ultimate purchaser of both bandwidth and services getting less bandwidth and paying more for services that run over it.

We ought to raise a real stink.

I might be a little hot about this but I’m far from the only one. The temperature on the web about this has been slowly rising. The problem is that the more smart people start to think about it the more discouraged they become. It’s hard to see a very effective way to prevent the corporations who “own” the connection to your home or office from doing as they please. The FCC has decided that their role is not to protect the public but to enable the corporations (or rather they have convinced themselves that there is no difference) and so can’t be expected to do much. There is grave doubt that regulation, even if we could get strong regulatory rules written, would really be effective. It certain that the more radical “structural separation” which forbids the owners of the pipes from offering services is simply a political nonstarter. (Tell Cox it can’t sell video? BellSouth it can’t sell phone service? It’ll never happen.) The fantasy of having many multiple providers providing multiple basic infrastructures is too inefficient to be economically viable. (Or we’d already have it; that’s what the 96 telecom law was supposed to encourage. Overbuilding is an uneconomic idea that has failed.) The sense I get is that people are slowly beginning to look the beast in the face: as the commercial internet has evolved we’ve done nothing to protect the fundamental framework that made the original internet so dynamic and valuable. With the last mile owned by corporations with no motive beyond profit-taking the days of free internet are numbered. For most people.

But maybe not for all.

Most particularly, Lafayette has found its way out of the trap. We don’t have to let (understandably) greedy corporations own our connection to the internet. As municipalities or coops we can own our own. BellSouth is acting the way it is because it most basic obligation is not to its customers but is, instead and rightly, to its owners. In any real conflict between the two the interest of the owners will determine the path the corporation takes. That’s the way our system works; now in situations where there is robust competition it is usually in the owners’ interests to be careful of customer demands that the customer does not flee to a competitor. But the telecom industry is simply not like that…most peoples’ practical choices are very limited, often to a single provider who can do for them what they need to have done. It’s an effective monopoly. And the sort of double-charging, get ’em coming and going sort of abuse we see emerging is common monopoly behavior. The good free enterprise solution to being an abused customer is to become an owner; if you do the dynamics of the system works for you.

That’s all Lafayette setting up the LUS system really does and the real reason why it will benefit the people of our city: it sets us all up as owners. You can’t monopolize yourself. If we decide we want a real, free internet we can simply demand it of our local utility…and, in point of fact, unfettered Internet connectivity was part of the package LUS offered when it laid its plan before the people. If the rest of the country can’t find the courage to stand up to BellSouth and its like Lafayette may be one of the very few places that still has an open and free internet.

Ours is an alternative that most folks aren’t considering: public ownership. It’s the only sensible alternative to the unpalatable choices between monopoly, unenforceable regulation, politically impossible radical structural separation, and uneconomic fantasies about multiple big pipe overbuilders who actually compete.

If we can get BellSouth and Cox out of our way it may one day be known as the “Lafayette solution.” And the last, best hope for a free internet.

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