Is “Net Neutrality” Breaking Out in North America?

Ok, so the term “Net Neutrality” has different interpretations for different people. Convergence of voice, Internet and broadcast media has created an entirely new set of stakeholders with divergent issues:

  • Users: they would like to exploit the Internet for all its various features: email, web browsing, viewing videos, exchanging text messages (think IM, not SMS), voice and video conversations, remote viewing of their cable TV subscription (one-to-one), researching and booking travel, researching purchases, buying goods and services … the list goes on…
  • Service Providers: basically they want to simply deliver the electrons in the form of data packets; they are not media mavens, do not care about content other than security issues. They are the extension of the copper wire, coaxial cable or fiber optic strands used to deliver the content but they are not and do not want to be content producers (other than portals that help users set up and use their services).
  • Content producers: fundamentally these are the talents that produce content who hope they can draw an audience. They want to be rewarded and compensated for their efforts and deserve to be at the artist, author or director level. Their traditional business models are breaking down but, in many instances, they do not have the leadership or enthusiasm to figure out the new business models for generating revenues.
  • Commercial enterprises want to promote and sell their goods and services. e-Commerce is growing, especially when it comes to travel, memberships, books, legacy catalogue operations and long tail goods and services.

A recipe for conflict. Even though the legacy voice carriers never concerned themselves with the spoken words (content) of a conversation, convergence of infrastructure and content, resulting from the potential of IP-based communications technology, has been muddying up the waters when it comes to considerations of what content is delivered over the Internet. And, of course, they need additional revenue streams as they see their previous business models and associated revenues evaporate.

“Net Neutrality” has become the modern equivalent of separation of church and state; the debate centers around separation of ‘”pipes” (copper or fiber) and content. As with our gas utilities in Ontario, give us the “last mile” pipes into our homes and negotiate/deal separately for whose “gas” will be delivered through those pipes.

BT-StructuralBypassSlide The Stockholm “structural bypass” model, as described by Brough Turner at eComm 2009, demonstrates “a simple proven path to ‘Real Broadband’” : 1.2 million kilometers of “dark” fiber around the city as a public utility with a low cost ($11 per month) for 100 Mbps connectivity complemented by over 300 service providers delivering content (or “lighting up” the fiber). Separation of pipes and content – one concept of “net neutrality”.

Politics and incumbent interests have presented challenges in the U.S. and Canadian markets. However, we’re starting to see some seeds being sown that hopefully will build a base of support for some level of “structural bypass”:

  • US: appointment of Blair Levin, a veteran of telecomm regulation, to help coordinate the FCC’s national broadband plan. Phil Wolff at Skype Journal comments in his post, King of Broadband:

    Astoundingly great, ubiquitous, pervasive, cheap, uncensored, clean, accessible, fair and market-driven broadband might be possible with a national plan. A former commissioner, Levin understands the deeper tech, social, economic and political forces at play, and the players. Skype’s Chris Libertelli told FierceVoIP last year that “Levin would make an excellent FCC chairman.” (He didn’t get the job.) Blair’s a nice guy who knows the lyrics to Winnie the Pooh songs.

  • Canada: at the Rogers Android launch last week I picked up vibrations that Rogers is doing and will do nothing to impede the evolution of services such as Skype onto their network. At this point, in response to my “scrum” question about Skype on Android phones sold by Rogers, Rogers Wireless CMO John Boynton stated that “it’s a Skype issue”. Further investigation has found that it is a matter of Skype establishing a business relationship with a carrier, not only to obtain Canadian numbers but also to establish the relevant physical interfaces into various Canadian PSTN carriers. It was made clear to me later by another Rogers marketing person that Rogers will do nothing to inhibit any services (as long as they do not impair their ability to deliver a quality service). And certainly they have made no issue of their customers using SlingPlayer Mobile for BlackBerry over their network. (Walked the BlackBerry two evenings ago watching a Stanley Cup Finals game while on the dog’s evening stroll.)
  • Canada: The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC – the Canadian version of FCC) recently decided to continue its policy of not regulating “broadcast content” delivered via the Internet or mobile phones. This is a classic case of the conflict created by the differing interests of service providers and content producers. From the Ars Technica post linked above:

    Internet broadcasting has had a special regulatory exemption since 1999, but some cultural groups and content creators argued that it was time to apply the same standards that govern TV to Internet broadcasting. ISPs were totally opposed to the plan, which would in some ways regulate them like traditional broadcasters.

  • On the same issue, The Globe and Mail quotes CRTC Chair Konrad van Finckenstein:

    “We do not believe that regulatory intervention is necessary at this time,” CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said in a statement. “We found that the Internet and mobile services are acting in a complementary fashion to the traditional broadcasting system. Any intervention on our part would only get in the way of innovation.”

  • Canada: Southern and eastern Ontario is seeing growth of several fiber optic initiatives where the focus is simply on building “last mile” fiber connectivity without regard to content:
    • Fifteen independent rural carries in southwestern Ontario are installing fiber-to-the home that will eventually reach even farms within two years.
    • Atria Networks has become a major supplier of fiber optic and wireless services to regions and counties surrounding the Greater Toronto Area as well as in the Ottawa region. School boards, government agencies and enterprises (including RIM) are users of what, in some cases, are multi-Gpbs services. At a press event last month Atria made a point about getting fiber to the end points for use as the customer sees appropriate for their operating needs with no limitations other than ensuring network security and operating integrity (as defined by an Acceptable Use Policy).
    • Cogeco, a major cable TV and Internet service provider across Ontario and Quebec, recently acquired Toronto Telecomm’s fiber assets within the Greater Toronto Area and established a separate business unit, Cogeco Data Services with plans for continued expansion of their high speed fiber services in the GTA.

Small signals in a world fraught not only with business issues but political agendas as well. These moves are a start but until, as we did with other utilities in past history, we can figure out a “Structural Bypass” model, there will always be challenges to obtaining “Net Neutrality” in terms of separating the “pipes” from the content.

It will be an interesting forum next week at the Canadian Telecom Summit when Skype’s Christopher Libertelli, Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs – Americas participates on a “Net Neutrality” panel along with Rogers’ Chief Strategy Officer, Mike Lee, and Dave Caputo, CEO of an infrastructure engineering company that attempts to ensure and improve quality of service, Sandvine.

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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