Google snubs UK's first Net Neutrality debate

The first significant Net Neutrality debate to take place in the UK was held today at Westminster. Chaired by former trade minister Alun Michael and the Conservative shadow trade minister Charles Hendry, the event attracted the chief Telecoms regulator and ministry policy chief, a clutch of industry representatives, and a sprinkling of members of both houses.

What emerged from the sessions is that ‘Neutrality’ is one of those incomprehensible American phenomenons, from which we’ve mercifully escaped. Your reporter was one of those invited to give a briefing – having reported on the issue from both sides of the pond – and said as much. But in the expectation that this would be the heretic view, rather than the near unanimous consensus opinion.

Summing up, Michael described the clamour for pre-emptive technical legislation as “extreme… unattractive and impractical”.

It was, he said, “an answer to problems we don’t have, using a philosophy we don’t share”.

That wasn’t the only surprise.

Google strop

Interestingly, the event was snubbed by Google, which in the USA has done so much to stoke the “Neutrality” crusade. Google has thrown lobbying money and muscle at Congress, but at Westminster, declined an invitation to speak. It sent a representative who told a fellow attendee that the panel was “biased”.

Stranger still, and this should cause conspiracy theorists some confusion – the Forum was sponsored by AT&T. That’s the AT&T that Neutralists insist doesn’t want to talk about its nefarious plans to sabotage the internet. Well, here it was. Maybe AT&T never had any intention of doing what the Neutralists claimed it wanted to do – and it was all a huge misdirection. But Occam’s Razor is never sufficient for conspiracy theorists, who simply create a new, and more elaborate narrative.

Overall, the debate was on another plane of technical and economic literacy to the hysteria served before Congress.

That doesn’t mean the UK regulator is oblivious to sensitivities. OFCOM regards the markets as essentially different. There’s more access competition here, and the UK doesn’t have such as ancient cruft as the US distinction between an information provider and a telephony provider. Greater competition means a regulator can do what a regular should do, believes OFCOM, and let the market sort it out.

OFCOM’s Douglas Scott reiterated that policy today. He said, however, he believed Neutrality wasn’t a US-only debate. Neutrality issues were being pushed up the agenda by the emergence of time-critical applications (such as video), and the ability of equipment vendors to deliver a smarter network. He then demolished most of the reasons why OFCOM needed to get involved.

In the USA, “all bits is equal” is a mainstream view, in Europe, it isn’t. The European framework permits ISP to prioritize packets by application, which the UK regulator regards as fine. A grey area, he suggested, was when an ISP offered MySpace a preferential Quality of Service deal, for a fee. Should the regulator constrain the fee?

Hand-off hands off

concerns about T-Mobile’s contract blocking VoIP calls last year. OFCOM was aware that rival network operators were striking deals with VoIP operators (3 UK now offers a packaging including Skype for £5 a month) and declined to intervene. T-Mobile has now responded with a VoIP tariff.

(It’s largely irrelevant, but still worth noting, that T-Mobile has yet to block a VoIP call made by your reporter, which suggests that while it wants to discourage VoIP calls it can’t afford to prevent them).

In that example, said Scott, OFCOM would probably have stepped in if all the operators were blocking VoIP.

Scott concluded by saying neutrality wasn’t an issue, so long as customers could migrate to an alternative provider quickly and easily.

Speaker after speaker described the difficulty of painting the phantom called Neutrality. Most characterized it as a US-centric debate. Most were wary of prescriptive regulation, which had to be technical by nature, when no harm had been caused and the problem couldn’t be described.

The Head of UK Telecoms Policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, Claire Hobson, said Neutrality was in danger of being an issue that’s “flogged to death”. She described the position as “relaxed but not comatose”, and reiterated Douglas Scott’s view that so long as people knew what deal they were getting, and could switch easily, “Neutrality” wasn’t an issue.

And Americans characterize Europeans as regulation-happy?

PacketExchange's counterpoint to Neutrality hysteria

Networks need to get smarter, says PacketExchange’s Kieron O’Brien, in a sharp counterpoint to the “Net Neutrality” hysteria.

PacketExchange bypasses the congestion of the internet by offering its customers a private end-to-end network. Some of its customers, such as Nokia, Microsoft, and cable ISP Telewest (now owned by Virgin) aren’t so surprising. But last week it added social networking site Bebo to its client list.

But look at what Bebo does, O’Brien told us. You’ll see why it wanted to bypass the net too.

For most internet users at home uploads are far from optimal – and Bebo users like to upload stuff, like photos and clips. They’re very model “Web 2.0 citizens”, if you like.

Which is where it runs into today’s network – and trouble.

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Spontaneous human combustion: Skype to blame

A Voice over IP service was to blame for a man in Massachusetts bursting into flames at the weekend.

The man, David Reed, held an executive position at Lotus in the early 1980s, and was a Fellow at HP Labs. He is said to be recovering from the spontaneous human combustion at MIT Media Lab, where he’s on the faculty – and where, we hope, the presence of alarm clocks that run away from people shouldn’t hinder his recovery.

David Reed

We’re speaking figuratively, of course.

Reed was responding to a discussion on David Farber’s IP list that prompted by last week’s publicity stunt by Skype. We reported this here, but to summarize: Skype, notorious as a closed system, asked the FCC to open its networks to so any device can be attached (which it already can), and create a new standards body so it could nobble the cellular operators’ own standards bodies, and tell them what to do. A fine case of the pot calling the kettle black, we suggested.

But the discussion rapidly turned into a conflagration.

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Pot, dial kettle: Closed Skype wants open networks

eBay’s proprietary VoIP service Skype wants the Federal Communications Commission to change its rules on how cellular networks operate.

It’s demanding that the US regulator extend a 1968 legal decision, which permitted any device to be attached to the AT&T network, to apply to mobile operators. It also wants a new industry body to decide the standards for the networks, and ensure they comply: effectively bypassing the 3GPP (http://www.3gpp.org/), 3GPP2 (http://www.3gpp2.org/) and IETF standards bodies.

“After you”, the operators may well say.

For Skype is a closed system itself, using a proprietary signalling protocol, in contrast to the open SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) family of industry standards. In addition, the Skype client is closed proprietary software – in contrast to the software libre WengoPhone (http://www.openwengo.org/) project, and in contrast to much of the core infrastructure used by VoIP service providers, which is often based on Asterisk (http://www.asterisk.org/), which is available under GPL.

But is the claim justified?
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Google – this internet won't scale

Google’s TV chief has admitted the internet is crap for TV. Speaking to the Cable Europe Congress in Amsterdam, Vincent Dureau told attendees:

“The web infrastructure, and even Google’s [infrastructure]…doesn’t scale. It’s not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect.”

Dureau, is head of TV technology at the ad giant. He candidly admitted that his own YouTube video service was part of the problem.

Engineers point to two different problems with today’s internet. The bandwidth is too low, but more acutely, latency and “jitter” mean the quality of the viewing experience is severely compromised. If an email program, or even one of Google’s YouTube’s Flash-based movies is forced to wait for a second, no one notices. But if a movie keeps hiccuping, no one will use the service again.

Adding to the dilemma is the question of who will invest to fix these problems – and who will end up paying for that investment?

Deloitte and Touche’s recently-published Telecoms Predictions report for 2007 contains a gloomy prediction that escaped almost everyone’s attention. Deloitte’s authors touch on the economics of the “net neutrality” debate, with respect to investment, advising partisans to calm down.

“Clearly, something has to change in the economics of internet access, such that network operators and ISPs can continue to invest in new infrastructure and maintain service quality, and consumers can continue to enjoy the internet as they know it today.”

That caught the attention of pundits. The conclusion, however, didn’t.

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Robert Kahn on Net Neutrality

Robert Kahn, the most senior figure in the development of the internet, has delivered a strong warning against “Net Neutrality” legislation.

Speaking to an audience at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California at an event held in his honour, Kahn warned against legislation that inhibited experimentation and innovation where it was needed.

Kahn rejected the term “Net Neutrality”, calling it “a slogan”. He cautioned against dogmatic views of network architecture, saying the need for experimentation at the edges shouldn’t come at the expense of improvements elsewhere in the network.

(Kahn gently reminded his audience that the internet was really about interconnecting networks, a point often lost today).

“If the goal is to encourage people to build new capabilities, then the party that takes the lead is probably only going to have it on their net to start with and it’s not going to be on anyone else’s net. You want to incentivize people to innovate, and they’re going to innovate on their own nets or a few other nets,”

“I am totally opposed to mandating that nothing interesting can happen inside the net,” he said.

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How AT&T chewed up, and spat out Net Neutrality

“It sure would be nice, but it doesn’t have much chance of happening because of market power, size, etc. I think it would be real hard to do. I don’t think the regulators would let that happen, in my judgment.” – Ed Whitacre on the possibility of taking over BellSouth, 2005.

The definition of a Southern Gentleman, it’s said, is someone so charming they can hand you your guts back on a plate – and you thank them.

If that’s the case, then AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre can have few peers in the charm sweeps. Whitacre has dispatched potential opposition to AT&T’s corporate expansion with the insouciance of a lion swatting a fly with its tail. Victory was complete shortly before the New Year, when the FCC agreed to Whitacre’s second mega-merger in the space of two years without hampering the emerging behemoth. The US regulator signed off on the AT&T-BellSouth merger that Whitacre himself had said he thought impossible, only 15 months earlier.

It’s been a masterpiece of misdirection. Whether by happy accident or design, Whitacre sent the opposition down a dead end, focusing its attention on a non-issue – or more accurately, an “issue” he himself created. The FCC applied the coup de grace with just one one sentence on December 29.

As the product of a series of mergers, AT&T now employs over 300,000 people and turns over $115bn in revenue – eleven Googles, or four Intels. The deal signed off by the FCC over the holidays also gives AT&T full control of Cingular, the United States’ second largest cellular network. Can there be anyone happier in the telecoms business tonight than Whitacre?

In a decade, American consumers have seen the number of Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), or Baby Bells, coalesce from six down to just three: the odd man out, Qwest, the RBOC which covers the sparsely populated Mountain states, is surely next on AT&T’s menu.

The extraordinary thing is that all this took place at a time in the wake of the fall out from the telecoms bubble. The Bells enjoyed little affection from the public in any case, long before Global Crossing and MCI. and with an unpopular Republican President, Democrats can have been expected to push a few populist buttons, and hear some bells.

What actually happened is that Whitacre got everything he wanted, but only thanks to the aid of The Democratic Party, most of whom aren’t aware how thoroughly they’ve been outwitted.

Now that’s style.

Let’s see how he did it.

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File swapping MSPs – the future of digital music?

Don’t expect Bono to descend from a cloud. Or orgasmic praise from the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg. When PlayLouder quietly rolls out its music service in the UK, it won’t initially match the razzle-dazzle of the iTunes Music Store launch, Rhapsody or the other million dollar marketing blitzes.

But the initial, low-key ‘soft launch’ of the first legal file swapping service to be backed by one of the major labels is deceptive. PlayLouder MSP offers something quite revolutionary, and its fate is more likely to shape the future of digital music distribution than anything we’ve seen to date.

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