"Surprising" AT&T Stance on Net Neutrality?

Some people might be shocked to learn that AT&T complies with existing Federal Communications Commission rules. Some people might be shocked to learn that AT&T actually already agrees that "best effort" Internet services ought to treat every packet the same as every other.

“We use the principle of ‘us on us,’” says AT&T  CTO John Donovan. “If we take an external developer and ourselves, we should not be advantaged in how long it takes or how much expertise is required."

"I don’t think it needs to be that complicated," he says. Does any application run by any third party work as well on the network as an AT&T-provided application?

"Outside applications need to be on an equal footing with our own applications," Donovan says.

But that's part of the problem with net neutrality. It is very hard to define and covers a range of business discrimination issues, network management and performance practices as well as potential future services that consumers might very well want to buy, that provide value precisely because they allow users to specify which of their applications take priority when the network is congested.

As a working definition, net neutrality is the idea that ISPs cannot "discriminate" between packets based on the owner or sender of packets, or on the type of lawful application, or block lawful packets.

The latter principle already applies to fixed broadband access connections, and the new change might be the extension of such rules to wireless providers. What is "new" in the current net neutrality debate is that concept that no packet can be afforded expedited handling, compared to another.

At some level, this is common sense. One wouldn't want video packets or voice packets sold by a third party to be disadvantaged, compared to video packets sold by the Internet access provider, for example.

But that isn't the issue in the current round of discussions and the possible FCC rulemaking. The issue is more an issue of  whether "affirmative" packet handling, as opposed to "negative" packet handling, will be lawful in the future.

"Negative" packet handling is sort of a "thou shalt not" approach: application providers should have a reasonable expectation that their best-effort Internet traffic will be handled the same way as any other application provider's traffic is treated. So ISPs "shalt not" provide any quality-of-experience advantage for their own application bits, as compared to any other bits delivered over the network.

All that sounds fair and reasonable, and in fact ISPs (after a few notable cases of interference), have concluded it is not worth the public outrage to block or delay any packets to heavy users, even when networks are congested, for the purpose of maintaining overall user experience for all the other users.

But there are several issues here. Good public policy would forbid business discrimination, a situation where any ISP could attempt to favor its own applications over those provided by its competitors. Back in the "old days," an example might have been a refusal by one telephone company to deliver calls from a rival.

But the network neutrality debate is far more complicated than that. There is a broad area where network management policies designed to maintain performance might be construed as business discrimination, even when the purpose is simply to protect 95 percent of users from heavy demand created by five percent of users.

Under heavy load, real-time applications such as video and voice suffer the most. So either end users might want, or ISPs might prefer, to give priority to those sorts of applications, at peak load, and slow down packets less sensitive to delay.

The problem with crudely-crafted net neutrality rules is that they might make illegal such efforts to maintain overall network performance for most applications and most users. One can hope that will not be the result, but it remains a danger.

The other issue is creation of new services or applications that can take advantage of expedited handling. Users might want their video or voice packets to have highest priority when there is network congestion. Crude net neutrality rules might make that impossible. But one can hope policymakers will take that sort of thing into consideration.

Net neutrality is a very-complicated issue with multiple facets. Ironically, end users might, in some cases, actually want packet discrimination.
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