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Executive Editor

VON speakers debate net neutrality

Mar 20, 20063 mins

* VON Internet neutrality debate all about politics

Politics, not technology, dominated the Spring 2006 VON show last week, with calls from Internet innovators to support proposed legislation they say would protect the next generation of ‘Net-based businesses.

At stake, speakers at the show asserted, is the notion of network neutrality supported by the FCC that says network providers cannot block or hinder Internet traffic unless it is illegal or damages the network. Congress is considering proposals that would require carriers to continue to give equal-quality access to Internet content and application providers.

Major carrier executives, notably AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre and Verizon Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg, have indicated they want to charge more for access to support content and applications that require faster response times such as voice, video and gaming.

Allowing that would stifle the innovation that brought about the Internet, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig told the audience during his keynote address. “Creativity is enhanced by less-than-perfect control over what content is on the network,” Lessig said.

Put more bluntly, if carriers charge more for enhanced Internet speeds, start-ups that try out new services on the Internet will never be able to afford the access they need to see if their ideas can succeed, said David Isenberg, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

“If they have to pay upfront to find their market, they’re screwed,” said Isenberg, who moderated panels at VON and promoted a meeting in Washington, D.C., next month that would bring together legislators, regulators and Internet entrepreneurs to work toward Internet-access protections.

Companies that have found success on the Internet don’t have to worry because they have the income to pay extra, he said. “Google and eBay and Yahoo and Amazon can make deals for the services they need,” Isenberg said.

The concern is that only carriers will be able to afford to innovate, Lessig says. “A network that is produced by end-to-end applications is more valuable to the economy than a network that gets produced by AT&T ownership,” he said.

But carrier executives say they deserve the ability to pay off the network investments they must make to provide high-quality service, and they deserve to profit.

During his VON keynote, Qwest CEO Dick Notebaert said the company will encourage content providers to buy higher quality-of-service pipes and to subsidize higher quality of service for their customers as a sound business move that would provide a competitive advantage. He likened this to a mail-order catalog company offering to ship sweaters overnight at no extra charge beyond the cost of standard five-day delivery. Customers would likely take the offer, and it is a way for the catalog company to gain a competitive advantage, he said.

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