Monday, August 16, 2010

The Net Neutrality Debate Should Focus on the Actual Problem

The latest news about net neutrality wheeling and dealing came up in the friday meetings here at Little Springs. While I have no idea what the ultimate goals of most of the big players are, I can certainly guess. And I think it's all going the wrong direction, and even those marching outside Google HQ are arguing the wrong point.

And what's bugging me is that even the fairly interesting articles and commentary about this issue pretty frequently miss key points. There are terms of art being used which are not being understood. So, we spent a little bit of time explaining what is basically going on, and how the telecom industry works. In the U.S. this is more about telecom law and regulation than business and way more than about end user needs, so it'll vary by country.

So, some of the key definitions to understand this. If you don't get the point, or want more information, search for these terms and read up on your own.

  • PSTN– Public Switched Telephone Network. Only wireline carriers, and originally circuit-switched carriers, are like this. AT&T, the Bell System, and now the split up RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies) and their mostly stillborn CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier) competitors. Oh, and the various IXCs (Interexchange Carrier) also, both the LD-only AT&T and new long distance companies like Sprint.
  • MNO – Mobile Network Operator. Similar for satellite and others. These connect to the PSTN, but are separate from it. They are private networks, like the PBX of big companies. Though you think your desk phone or mobile phone is a phone, it's not. It's a private terminal on a private network that interconnects to the PSTN. Different rules apply. Generally, interconnection is to and through the PSTN. Meaning, if you make a call from your Verizon mobile to a T-mobile phone, the call goes through the PSTN, even though it doesn't terminate there. Generally.
  • Common Carrier – A legal term, that applies to any generally available (public) service for transporting goods, people or information. An airline is a common carrier, as is UPS (and Disney World, actually). The RBOCs, CLECs and IXCs are common carriers. Your MNO is not a common carrier, nor is your ISP, and they have all fought a lot to avoid that labelling. To be a common carrier means you have to provide access to everyone (unless they are axe murderers) at non-discrininatory price points, and so on.
  • Quality of Service – Almost always just referred to as QoS, so I will also. Wireline telecom services provide guaranteed "quality" of service to certain users. The fire department is a good example. Even when there's a disaster, and the network is swamped, they can pick up the phone in the fire station, and get a dial tone, and call anyone they want. Even if that involves kicking someone else off their call, or interrupting an ongoing call for who they are calling. That is a very high QoS level. There are others in between. Most are for public safety and so on. Certain private networks implement many levels, some of which you pay for. Mobile generally doesn't have QoS (which also makes them useless to public safety in disasters, and is why they are all buying new digital radio systems) but it is built into many of the specs, so they could if they wanted to. This one really gets lost in the shuffle. I have seen blogs referring to "quality of services" when they clearly are discussing the Quality of Service aspects of telecom. Be careful when writing, or reading.

My gut reaction has been on the side of the information-should-be-free people. It's a good argument. But then I started talking out loud about stuff like interoperability, and addressed what QoS meant, and realized I really want something much, much bigger.

As I see it, the corporate goals are all about chasing next quarter profit, and getting record growth. I am not sure what a real revenue model would be for the new telecoms, but there needs to be something more sustainable (think along the lines of SMS getting tiny interconnect fees...forever). The FCC is better than most agencies as far as thinking systematically, but the government in general is doing something similar, and trying to solve what is perceived as today's crisis.

And I see a lot of those general arguments coming from the network operator sides: Mobile is different because it's bigger. Because it's constrained in bandwith, etc. I have one inappropriate word for that. A whole field of math to control traffic arose from setting up wireline networks. And lots of the rules (like QoS) are based on congestion issues. Nothing should be legislated based on the state of a technology today. Even 10 years from now I cannot imagine what the networks and usage patterns will be. Without a real solution, we'll be debating this every five years for the rest of time.

What I want would not be a pile of new legislation or rule-making. It would be simple. A method is proscribed for the FCC (probably) to determine that a type of interconnected telecommunications device is a common carrier. They then have to abide by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Part 202 (a) states:

It shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device, or to make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.

That's easy. Apply those rules evenly to everyone, and every type of communications, voice or data. Old timey dialup internet service on the PSTN had to be provided totally equally to everyone, and at similar prices. There were court cases. This was solid. And I fail to see why taking the electricity out of the wires, or using packet switching changes anything.

There may need to be some other changes to telecom law, to allow interconnects, compensation and so on (e.g. probably also the long distance provisions) to be applied to these new, non-wireline common carriers. But that doesn't worry me.

And it very much proves my point. In 1996 this law was passed to actually try to rationalize the wireline telephone industry which changed entirely in 1983 with the AT&T breakup. By 1996, there were enough mobile phones that phone booths were already disappearing. Now, not 16 years from now, is the time to change the U.S. telephone industry to embrace mobile.

The 1996 law was the first totally encompassing telecom law in the US since the original Communcations Act of 1934. Now, not in 2058 – after another 62 years have passed, is the time to change the U.S. telephone industry to embrace all these new communications methods.

Not just for consumer protection, but to make mobile, and all types of data services a fully qualified player in the communications world.

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