Should net neutrality apply to web companies too?

An article in BusinessWeek is calling wireless net neutrality "the mother of all battles," and highlights how CTIA and Google are lining up the meetings on Capitol Hill and spending millions on lobbying.

I think one of the tools telecom incumbents will use is what AT&T did last week by claiming Google violates net neutrality principles. They are going to highlight as many examples as they can where web companies themselves aren't so open.

In a letter AT&T sent a letter to the FCC last week, it claimed Google's Google Voice application is violating both federal call-blocking regulations and net neutrality principles by improperly blocking calls to certain rural areas. AT&T is urging the FCC to investigate.  

"To the extent 'net neutrality' is animated by a concern about ostensible Internet 'gatekeepers,' that concern must necessarily apply to application, service, and content providers," Robert Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulations, wrote to the FCC's Sharon Gillett.

Expect Google to be the primary target. Google is going to be their competitor some day--using their own networks. Remember the spat between Google and Verizon over open-access provisions in the 700 MHz auction back in 2007 and 2008? Google was the one pushing for open access so heavily, while Verizon and AT&T were the ones reminding the public that Google continually tried to change the rules to further its own business interests through the regulatory process.

Wireless operators already have help from the American Cable Association. The ACA last week called on the FCC to adopt more expansive net neutrality regulations that would apply to media conglomerates and web giants as well.

"For the last few years, some in Congress and at the FCC have been pushing for rules that would prevent broadband service providers, particularly the larger ones, from operating their networks in ways that would unfairly prevent consumers from accessing all lawful Web-based services and applications," said ACA President and CEO Matthew M. Polka. "However, during that same period, some Senators, House lawmakers and FCC chairmen have been missing the far greater threat to the `Open Internet' ideal, which is how media conglomerates and Web giants are using their leverage to assure themselves preferential treatment on the networks of Internet service providers at the expense of other Web-based services, applications and consumers."

He uses ESPN360, owned by Walt Disney Co., as an example. Broadband service providers must pay ESPN fees based on its total number of broadband subscribers, forcing those who have no interest in viewing sporting contests over the Internet to subsidize those who actually want to access ESPN360 on a regular basis.

While some will call these tactics a deflection, their concerns do highlight something the FCC needs to address in the net neutrality debate: Whether it should continue to separate the Internet from the network and start treating everyone the same.

As business strategy consultant and notable author Larry Downes notes on his blog: "Much as the FCC wishes there was still a clear distinction between 'the Internet' and 'the telephone network,' technology has obliterated that difference. Internet companies (Vonage, Skype) provide phone service using TCP/IP, "phone companies" offer Internet access over their equipment, while "cable companies" offer the same service over cable-along with phone services and television, which the phone companies also offer ...  There's a simple solution to all this, one that might make a rational conversation about net neutrality possible.  And that is to eliminate the distinction between common carriers and everyone else. Hold everyone to the same rules regardless of what information they are transporting-whether voice, video, television, data."

The FCC has virtually left "the Internet" alone because it wanted to foster growth. Well it has grown way beyond its britches, and there are some mighty large companies making a nice living off of it. So as silly as AT&T's argument against Google is, there is merit in the big picture.--Lynnette