Carrier moves on open access, P2P indicative of shift in attitudes

Carriers’ turnaround could be shape of things to come

When telecom historians look back at the events of 2007, they could very well see them as the carriers’ last stand against opening up their networks.

When telecom historians look back on the events of 2007, they may well see them as the carriers' last stand against opening up their networks.

After all, it was just six months ago that Verizon unsuccessfully sued the FCC in an attempt to overturn the open-access rules it had placed on a portion of the 700MHz spectrum auction.  Fast forward to today, and Verizon has won the very auction that it had tried to thwart.

But Verizon's shift on the 700MHz auction isn't the only step it's taken toward further opening up its network. This week, the carrier released technical specifications that third-party developers need to meet to connect their devices to its open-access network. The specifications were released as part of Verizon's Open Development Initiative (ODI), which the company has launched to entice more device manufacturers and mobile application developers to create products to connect to Verizon's open-access network. Last year, the company announced it would give its customers an open-access service option that would let them connect to the Verizon network using third-party devices.

Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone said this week that while the company's first priority in approving new third-party devices is to protect its network and its customers, its specifications for these devices are based on industry standards and aren't any more rigorous than the specifications Verizon uses to approve its own devices. Melone also said Verizon Wireless would be active in providing technical advice and support to developers who have difficulty meeting the network specifications, because "we can't put ourselves in a framework where all we do is stamp 'pass' or 'fail'" on new devices.

Verizon's move toward an open-access option comes at a time when more American carriers have warmed to allowing third-party devices and applications to connect to their networks. Last year, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel joined the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a multinational group with more than 30 members dedicated to promoting Google's Android open-access mobile platform initiative. The idea behind the platform, according to the OHA, is to spur innovation in developing mobile applications that will give users the same experience surfing the Web on their phone as they have on their desktop computers. And while AT&T has yet to open up its network in the same way that Verizon has, it soon will support a host of new third-party mobile applications due to Apple's recently-released iPhone software development kit.  

The carriers' moves toward openness are a big victory for Google, which has taken several measures to push for more open wireless networks. Google made no secret of its desire to use Android as a carrot to entice more carriers into allowing third-party devices on their networks, for instance, and the company was one of the chief lobbyists behind the effort to get the FCC to place open-access rules on the 700MHz spectrum auction.

Mike Jude, a senior analyst at Nemertes Research, told Network World last year that the FCC's decision to promote open access in a portion of the 700MHz auction and Google's open Android platform were two key factors in Verizon's change in attitude toward open access, because it didn't want its competitors to gain a market advantage by offering more dynamic service packages. Jude also thinks Verizon's decision to open up was a clever way to head off any future FCC action to impose network neutrality by providing the commission with its own model of an open-access network that is more favorable to its interests. Gartner analyst Tole Hart shares Jude's view that open-access moves by competitors have placed pressure on the big carriers to open up, and thinks that there are still more open-access dominoes yet to fall.

"It's a herd mentality," he said last year. "And the bottom line is, consumers want choice."

More carriers embracing P2P technology, too

While some carriers' adoption of Android and others' acceptance of open-access rules in the 700MHz auction indicate they are loosening controls on what devices can connect to their network, recent moves by AT&T and Verizon suggest that more carriers are rethinking their stances toward a traditional ISP nemesis: peer-to-peer technology.

Last week, Verizon announced it had successfully tested a new experimental P2P file-transfer system that could eliminate many of the headaches that P2P systems have caused ISPs in the past. The software, which Verizon helped test in conjunction with researchers at Yale University and P2P software developer Pando Networks, lets the network select sources that will optimize the delivery route of large files, thus making P2P transfers faster and less expensive, according to Verizon senior technologist Douglas Pasko. AT&T has also been conducting field tests of the P2P technology over its network with researchers from Yale and the University of Washington.

The P2P field test was conducted through the P4P Working Group, an industry organization sponsored by the Distributed Computing Industry Association, whose mission is to bring ISPs, P2P software distributors and technology researchers together to create a set of practices designed to optimize P2P content distribution. In addition to Verizon, AT&T and Pando Networks, the P4P group includes such major players as BitTorrent and Cisco.

In the past, some ISPs have been wary of P2P programs such as BitTorrent, which distribute large data files by breaking them up into small pieces and sending them through multiple sources then reassembling them after all the data is received. P2P protocols have posed traffic management challenges to ISPs in the past, because they are mainly designed to download large chunks of data from sources wherever they can be found, and without particular regard to network efficiency.

This has led to some ISPs struggling to find ways to manage P2P traffic that doesn't degrade user experience or upset customers. Comcast, for instance, sparked controversy last year after the Associated Press reported the company was actively interfering with some of its customers' ability to share files online. Comcast's critics were skeptical of its defense of its traffic management policies, and the company weathered further criticism of its practices at an FCC panel on broadband network management last month.

Researcher Haiyong Xie, a Yale Ph.D. candidate who first proposed the experimental P2P technology with Yale associate professor Yang Richard Yang in 2006, says that Verizon and AT&T's collaboration with P2P developers is a reflection of the strength of their networks and the fact that P2P technology has become such a large driver in the growth of bandwidth demand. As the technology evolves and as more ISPs build out there network capacity, more of them will adopt P2P as the most efficient way for their customers to transfer large files over their networks.

"Some ISPs, because of their infrastructure being different, are not ready to support this type of P2P technology," he says. "For a Comcast, or other companies that provide limited uploading capacity, [the technology] will need to be improved in such a way that not only ISPs like Verizon can benefit from P2P."

The two big carriers' willingness to work with the P4P group is significant, says Xie, because it shows they understand that P2P technology is not something to be resisted, but rather is something that can be improved upon to create a better experience for both users and ISPs.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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