Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AT&T Want The Internet Their Way

The future of broadband and internet development is dangerously close to becoming much less than it is now, less a public commodity and more of a cash machine for a very few. Sadly, some state governments (like Tennessee) are already handing over immense contracts for services to AT&T in critical fields such as medicine and education. They just spent over $500,000 successfully lobbying the state's GOP-led legislature to deregulate phone service.

But they want it all, baby.

Art Brodsky writes about the "new ideas" coming from AT&T - which is scrambling to make a place for itself after offering little for decades - ideas for national policy and warns:

Now, for the first time, having a neutral, non-discriminatory Internet will hamper public safety. Funny, for all those years that the network was neutral and non-discriminatory under the Communications Act, no one found a public-safety issue. Only in the last couple of years, it seems, has this become an issue.

Not only is a non-discriminatory Internet potentially harmful to public safety, it will also make service less affordable, AT&T argues: “Concerns about affordability also underscore the importance of rejecting calls for regulatory obligations—such as extreme versions of net neutrality—that will not address any real-world problem, yet will increase the costs of deploying and operating broadband platforms and prevent providers from offering services on their platforms to all entities that may wish to purchase them, including providers of content, applications, and services. These proposals, however well-intended, will only increase the cost to consumers and reduce the availability of broadband Internet access and thus are antithetical to the goal of broadband affordability.”

Just think this is a company intent on putting bandwidth caps on its customers, and yet finds the time to worry about affordability, even as it cuts down on deployment and forces public-access channels into the channel 99 oubliette. The message is simple, and constant: do it our way or we won’t invest.

Verizon, too, takes the hard edge off of the Whitacre logic, through such terms as “consumer empowerment,” and “consumer choice framework.” Verizon is all for those concepts, when it provides the empowerment and the choices. Heaven forbid that the FCC requires wholesale or line-sharing access to Verizon’s services. Those might be the regulatory burdens that would inhibit innovation or investment. Instead, one must give network operators the “flexibility” to offer “managed” services. Verizon Executive Vice President Tom Tauke trotted this horse out of the barn a couple of weeks ago, when he said, “Our view is, in the future, consumers ought to have the ability to choose between the wild, wild West of the Internet or to choose a different experience.”

In its filing, Verizon made that argument: “Some customers may prefer more highly managed Internet access services that provide additional layers of security to shield themselves or their children from certain sites or from online security threats, while some tech-savvy users may prefer a less-managed service without those protections.” That’s a fine idea – for 1998. If Verizon wants to get into the walled-garden business, I’m sure it could buy AOL, or purchase the rights to Prodigy’s name. One of those companies is hanging by a thread; the other no longer exists, because access to the Internet at large killed them both. Consumers preferred the Wild, Wild West and the broad array of features and services."

The FCC just closed the first round of public comments regarding a national broadband plan and will open a second round in July, with a report expected in February of next year.

Meanwhile, AT&T is angering iPhone buyers. Apple upgraded their devices to include multimedia messaging and "tethering" - which allow for users to connect computers to the internet via the device - but AT&T has blocked customers from using them.

Multimedia messaging has taken off among users in Europe and Asia, who can send pictures and videos using a variety of smart phones available on the market. The new European iPhone, which will be made available via overseas carriers, will have the new features built in.

But in America, the iPhone is offered exclusively by AT&T, and for many that’s the real problem.

An AT&T spokesperson told the New York Times that "the delay has nothing to do with network issues," but declined to say why AT&T is slow to embrace cell phone innovation in the United States.

Some clues might come from the company’s long and turbulent relationship with any new technology that threatens its control. For decades, the old AT&T telephone monopoly controlled every phone on its grid and banned other companies from connecting innovative devices -- including answering machines, fax machines, cordless phones and early computer modems.

A groundbreaking 1968 policy change, known among tech wonks as “Carterfone,” pried open the device marketplace so that numerous new phone products could be introduced. This in turn spawned a flood of innovation in services that greatly benefited customers.

That old monopoly was broken up. But the new AT&T seems nostalgic, unilaterally deciding which applications make it onto the iPhone and which don’t. Both Skype and SlingPlayer won’t work over AT&T’s 3G network, not because the technology doesn’t function, but because the AT&T media empire is threatened by services that may strain its already shaky networks and compete with its other products. AT&T's lead lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, told USA Today, "We absolutely expect our vendors not to facilitate the services of our competitors."

Much more on the rocky relationship is here.

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