AT&T, Verizon join Google in net neutrality group

Talk about strange bedfellows.

AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and Comcast have joined forces with Google, Microsoft, Intel and other tech and telecom companies to form an independent technical coalition that will develop voluntary guidelines for handling network data traffic. The coalition, called the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group, is being seen as a way to bypass the overheated rhetoric that has come to dominate the net neutrality debate.

The group, which will be made up of engineers, is being led by Dale Hatfield, the former CTO of the FCC and now an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The group's formation also comes a week ahead of an FCC meeting on net neutrality. The BITAG said it will work to "develop consensus on broadband network management practices or other technical issues that can affect users' Internet experience, including the impact to and from applications, content and devices that utilize the Internet."

"The TAG will function as a neutral, expert technical forum and promote a greater consensus around technical practices within the Internet community," said Hatfield. "The TAG would consider a number of factors in looking at technical practices, including whether a practice is used by others in the industry; whether alternative technical approaches are available; the impact of a technical practice on other entities; and whether a technical practice is aimed at specific content, applications or companies."

The debate over net neutrality, which had been simmering for months, has taken on new life in recent weeks. Last month FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pushed ahead with a new legal strategy that would allow the commission to implement net neutrality regulations for wireless and wired networks, following a federal court decision that forced the FCC to re-think its legal basis for broadband regulation. Genachowski's so-called "third way" essentially will reclassify broadband from a Title I information service to a Title II common-carrier service while at the same time forbearing from, or agreeing not to pursue, many of the regulations that are imposed on Title II services such as telephone systems.

The CTIA opposed Genachowski's move, and, along with AT&T and Verizon, argued net neutrality rules are unnecessary. Additionally, the wireless industry has argued that wireless networks are fundamentally different in terms of architecture and usage than wired ones, and should not be subject to the same restrictions.

One of the major points of contention in the net neutrality debate has been how the FCC defines "reasonable network management," which would determine how much leeway carriers have in manging Internet traffic in mobile or fixed settings.

Markham Erickson, the executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, said the announcement of the group is a positive step, but also urged caution. "We strongly feel as with all self-regulatory regimes, this can only be effective with a legal backstop to enforce voluntary industry rules at the FCC," he said in a statement. "Without such a backstop, this approach will be toothless and ultimately ineffective."

Gigi Sohn, the president of public interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement she is "cautiously optimistic" about the proposal. "However, we note that we will watch closely as the group develops policies and processes, including figuring out who is eligible to join and the process by which issues are submitted and decided. We note that the group as constituted is currently dominated by the telecommunications industry," she said. "In addition, we emphasize that regardless of the degree of technical expertise of this private-sector group, it is not a substitute for FCC rules and enforcement procedures, and it certainly should not be interpreted as such by anyone."

For more:
- see this Washington Post article
- see this CNet article
- see this PC Magazine article
- see this Bloomberg article

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