The sales force at AT&T stores has a lot to do these days. They have to customers disappointed over dropped calls and poor service on the overburdened wireless network. They have to explain why the new iPhone data plan is more expensive than the old one, as my colleague and iPhone enthusiast Alex Curtis discovered.
And now they have one more burden – they have to sell the bogus anti-Net Neutrality message distributed by AT&T’s chief lobbyists to AT&T employees across the country.
That might be the hardest test of all, because the arguments posed by AT&T’s chief lobbyist don’t make a lot of sense, starting with the admonition that employees should “to join the voices telling the FCC not to regulate the Internet.” The letter doesn’t mention, for example, that many of those legislators who signed a letter opposing Net Neutrality get lots of money from AT&T, or for that matter, from Verizon, as Bruce Kushnick reports.
It’s not true to say that those who favor Net Neutrality want to “regulate the Internet.” We want to regulate the companies which provide access to the Internet, because that’s where the choke points are, and where regulation has historically been necessary to curb abuse by powerful companies of consumers with little choice.
That’s why another of the suggesting blogging points falls short. The AT&T lobbyist, James Cicconi, writes, “The FCC shouldn't burden an industry that is bringing jobs and investment to the country, but if it is going to regulate the Internet it should do so fairly. The goal of the FCC should be to maintain a level playing field by treating all competitors the same. Any new rules should apply equally to network providers, search engines and other information services providers.”
This paragraph is a classic example of muddying up an issue. Net Neutrality is about the network, and what the carriers can do within it to traffic with, or without, the knowledge of the customers. A search engine is not a network provider. It is a Web application. People have the choice of search engines in a way that they don’t with network providers. Now, if someone has an issue with the business practices of a search engine or other service, that’s fine. But it’s not Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality at its essence is making certain that the carriers don’t play favorites with some traffic over others, and that customers, not carriers, make the decisions on what speeds they want and what services they use. For example, as my colleague Alex discovered AT&T will allow its video stream over its network, but not that of a customer’s Slingbox. How fair is that? Not very, and it’s the condition Net Neutrality is supposed to address.
At the moment, network carriers are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Search engines are not. Does AT&T really want the FCC in the business of regulating search engines? That would be a stretch, even for AT&T.
Because we’re in a recession, no plea would be complete without the jobs angle, and Cicconi complies: “The ‘net neutrality’ rules as reported will jeopardize the very goals supported by the Obama administration that every American have access to high-speed Internet services no matter where they live or their economic circumstance. That goal can't be met with rules that halt private investment in broadband infrastructure. And the jobs associated with that investment will be lost at a time when the country can least afford it.”
Wrong again. Net Neutrality rules have nothing to do with jeopardizing the goal of allowing access to high-speed broadband, and nothing to do with halting infrastructure build-out or with costing jobs. Net Neutrality is about being fair with customers. If AT&T, which has so far declined to invest in a fiber network, as Verizon has, doesn’t want to build out, it won’t do so for its own reasons. And AT&T’s construction budget has fallen in the last couple of years, out of its internal strategy. If its wireless network if overburdened from the iPhone, then maybe it will improve its construction budget. If AT&T wants to lay off tens of thousands of people, as it has already done, it will do so for its own reasons which have nothing to do with Net Neutrality.
Cicconi makes one partially reasonable point: “Network companies have to be able to manage their networks to ensure the most economical and efficient use of bandwidth, and provide affordable broadband services for all users. Network management is essential for consumers to enjoy the benefits of new quality-sensitive applications and services. The FCC rules should not stop the promise of life-changing, cost-saving services such as telemedicine that depend on a managed network.”
No one is saying that network companies can’t manage their networks. Of course they can. They just can’t do it in a way that favors one party over another. Or, as AT&T agreed to when it took over BellSouth, it can’t prioritize bits based on “source, ownership or destination.”
The part about managed networks is a bit dicey. The carriers want to slice off a piece of the Internet for their own private offerings, and so far the FCC appears to be willing to allow them to do that. Telephone company executives shouldn’t complain about the “managed service” cutout, even though it was on their behalf that the FCC is even considering slicing and dicing the Internet bandwidth. If there is a managed services exemption, the FCC will have to be careful that the “paid” side of the business doesn’t overwhelm the real Internet by migrating services away from the network everyone uses.
Cicconi also extols the virtue of the wireless market for competition and innovation and says it shouldn’t be burdened with “unnecessarily harmful regulations.” He’s right, up to a point, in a market in which two carriers control the vast majority of the customers and also control the crucial backhaul services that their wireless competitors use and control the fate of smaller companies through roaming agreements. No one wants harmful regulations, but playing fair with customers doesn’t seem particularly harmful.
Speaking of competitive, have you experienced a locked phone lately? Or tried to use an iPhone on a network other than AT&T? Or seen a major wireless carrier with radically different plans from a competitor? An industry can always use more competition. But that’s a story for the National Broadband Plan, not a neutrality issue.
Pity the poor AT&T employees who need to get into those arguments.