Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

There's a tussle going on that Matt has been illuminating involving the Communications Workers of America's stance on net neutrality. The CWA is an AFL-CIO-affiliated union representing more than 700,000 workers, some at AT&T, NBC, the New York Times, and elsewhere. In a few cases now, CWA has objected to net neutrality provisions. What's frustrating is that in so much that involves telecom and media policy, the goal of some seems to be to obfuscate and fuzzy the picture until most normal people throw up their hands and move on to something else. We hear flatly untrue arguments, like the one about how Google doesn't pay for the enormous bandwidth it uses. We hear said that this is Goliath vs. Goliath, a fight between one giant corporation and another: Verizon's multimillionare CEO Ivan Seidenberg vs. Google's very rich executives "with their own agenda." It's almost as if some involved want us to just worry instead about who's going to win American Idol.

That fuzziness and obfuscation is one of the reasons that telecom build-out projects like ConnectKentucky are so exciting. People like maps, and graphic representations can convey an enormous amount information in a palatable way. Maps tell us, hey, this town has no access to the broadband Internet, or this apartment building only can go online through CableCo X.

But back in the non-color-coded world of telecom policy, we have the Communications Workers of America nuanced arguments as to why they don't support neutrality provisions like the one the California Democratic Party recently attempted to adopt. Alas, there's no real way to figure out what's going on without digging into the technical details of neutrality. This stuff is enough to make your head hurt, seriously. Mine is throbbing a bit now. But something's not clear here, and we need to pin it down. Let's see if we can.

Fortunately, we have something of a test case going on right now right here in New York State. A major telecommunications reform bill, A.3980B/S.5124, aims to increase broadband penetration, particularly in rural and underserved urban areas. A wide range of folks are pretty excited about the measure. Free Press is a big fan. Pete Sikora from CWA's District 1 (which represents 327 CWA local unions in New York, New Jersey, New England, and eastern Canada) called it "The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread" in a post on the fantastic Albany Project. All well and good, but one hitch -- CWA opposes the net neutrality provisions in the bill. When the question of neutrality was raised on TAP, Pete said: "Truth be told, I don't really know what people mean when they say 'net neutrality' anyway."

Okay, well, here's what the neutrality provisions in the New York State bill say on the topic. Under the measure, a telecom provider cannot (bill text):

(A) block, impair, discriminate against, or interfere with the ability of any person to use Internet based traffic based on the source, destination, or ownership of the Internet traffic that carries video service, in a manner that degrades or otherwise negatively impacts the access to, or the quality of services received by an end user;
(b) engage in any exclusive or preferential dealings regarding the carriage and treatment of Internet traffic, including, but not limited to, traffic that carries video programming or video service, with an affiliate or third party provider of internet applications, services, content, or video services;
(c) impose an additional charge to avoid any conduct that is prohibited by this section.

So that's one definition of neutrality, and a definition of a certain sort -- if we remind ourselves that we're talking about only Internet-based content, it still leaves providers free to discriminate or promote on the type of content. So what? Like so much in this net neutrality debate, it comes down to video. And what the the NY neutrality provision means is that Verizon could make it so that all video packets on its broadband networks are identified and treated kindly. But it couldn't allow only Verizon video packets to have a lovely and swift trip across the Internet.

So that's one definition of a neutral net. But we don't have to rely on the definition from the NY state bill. Helpfully, we also have the neutrality language that AT&T agreed to in its letter of commitment from its merger with SBC:

AT&T “commits that it will maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband Internet access service” and pledges “not to provide or to sell to Internet content, application, or service providers, including those affiliated with AT&T/BellSouth, any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet transmitted over AT&T/BellSouth’s wireline broadband Internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination.”

Now we have two definitions of net neutrality to work with. Let's hold them up against what CWA seems to want. From a 2006 CWA news release:

CWA has outlined four principles to ensure an open Internet which includes allowing providers to reserve a portion of bandwidth for their video service so that telecom companies can pay for the huge investments they are making.

Notice "their video service." One thing that's almost clear in this situation is that CWA is fighting to protect the right for Verizon et al to serve their own non-Internet based video over a carved-out section of their tube. They talk about this as concern about their ability to offer private-line video services separate and apart from their Internet services.

On that point, it doesn't seem that video content offered via, say, fiber-optic lines like Verizon's FIOS is necessarily an Internet product. Elsewhere in the AT&T merger letter, for example, they exempt IPTV -- television service akin to cable. While it's not as spelled-out in the New York State bill, I'm not sure how that provision would prevent the use of cable-equivalent television. In fact, one of the major goals of the bill is to increase the provision of cable services and grow competition in the cable market, so folks in Bolton Landing upstate, where I spent a lovely weekend this fall, will not only be able to watch Entourage, but will be able to perhaps even benefit from some price competition.

But is that the beginning and end of what CWA wants -- the right to use part of their infrastructure to deliver cable-like video? Laura Unger, the President of the New York-area CWA Local 1150 has argued that:

...CWA believes that on a portion of the greatly improved infrastructure, "network providers should be entitled to provide video and other private networks on a proprietary basis." That would just be a small portion of the total bandwidth and have no effect on the "open internet" on the remainder. That seems like a pretty reasonable position to me.

We've already discussed cable-like video delivered via the infrastructure they control. But if we're talking about IP-based video here, then while this approach probably makes good business sense from the Verizon and AT&T perspective, it's not the Internet we know and love.The ability to offer IP-based provider-specific services is in and of itself discrimination that fractures the vast global network we've come to call the Internet. Under this model, Verizon offers super-fast Verizon video in direct competition with Google Video; AT&T offers super-reliable voice-over-IP solutions that compete with Vonage. The providers both own the networks and control the content that runs across them.

But let's say that all CWA is really worried here about non-IP based video, and that in the eyes of lawyers at CWA "Internet based" in the New York State bill somehow limits those services. Why not then put effort into tweaking the New York bill and similar measures to conform to the AT&T/SBC definition of neutrality, the one that seems to allow them to offer all the pure video services they want? If that's the case, why not work with legislators to fix it up, so we can all move on?

Tags: CWA, net neutrality (all tags)

Comments

14 Comments

Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

I don't get the "closing the gap" headline. There either is Net Neutrality or there isn't. There is no room for us to compromise and CWA has made it very clear that they are willing to roll over to big telco management on this.

And look at how CWA's tactics of changed. The realize selling out the internet isn't popular and after they lost in Michigan publicly they changed tactics to kill net neutrality in CA behind closed doors.

I don't think trying to close the gap makes strategic sense, I think we need to realize they are the enemy (or more accurate the enemy's lap-dog) and escalate.

by Bob Brigham 2007-05-11 03:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

The distinction between IP Video and Cable Video is essentially meaningless.  Without getting too far into the details, all digital video is data.  Data can be encapsulated in any number of data formats, and shipped to the end decoder in any number of transport formats.  Most cable digital video is encoded and transported in the MPEG-2 digital video format.  But you can take MPEG-2 digital video packets and stuff them into IP transport packets; they get unpacked, re-sequenced, and decoded at the receiver.  I used to work for a company that did exactly that.

You can also encode video using things like H.264 or MPEG-4 video encoding (or Flash, for YouTube), and then stuff that data into IP packets.  It's all bits.

The main difference is that the cable systems are designed to deliver video (and now digital video, following a major upgrade over the last decade or so) AND they figured out a way to deliver data (including VOIP) to end users.  Near as I can tell, in that same decade the telcos mostly did a big long-haul fiber build out and fought the CLECs to retain local loop capacity and rack space.  

So the telcos are now caught flat-footed, which means that they want to take some of their existing network (or some of a buildout) to compete head to head with the cable cos.

That's what all this is about.

(incidentally, for true Hi-Def TV (1080 lines at a 16:9 aspect ratio, and progressive scanning, even after encoding and video compression you need a committed 19.2 megabits per second -- you might not use all of it, but you need it.  It's a ton of bandwidth.)

by jsw 2007-05-11 03:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

[Disclaimer:  I work with one or more companies who have a stake in the outcome of this discussion.  I do not work with them w/r/t any of these issues, nor have I discussed these issues with any of these companies.  Any opinions I might state on these issues are entirely my own.]

by jsw 2007-05-11 03:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

Verizon uses different frequencies to send voice, data, and video signals over the same fiber optic cable.  The interactive features for FIOS video, such as the program guide, video on demand, and pay per view, use the same data portion of the bandwidth that Verizon uses to provide Internet access.  While FIOS video is not video over IP, FIOS currently being installed requires both a set-top box and a router to receive digital video and interactive features. The FIOS set-top box has an IP address.  FIOS may be closer to video over IP than to what you label "cable-like video".  An interesting question is whether AT&T will offer its video over IP to FIOS data customers or will only bundle video with AT&T broadband service.

by bdungan 2007-05-11 03:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

Indeed that is the conclusion I came to in the immediate wake of the CDP convention, that the sides seemed close enough to be able to find a middle ground.

And yes, this makes my head hurt.  I had to consult with my father who is an expert in telecommunications, VOIP and international Internet standards to try and cut through the tech talk to get the policy differences.

by juls 2007-05-11 04:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

i thought i finally had this all figured out and now you go and post this. it's back to befuddlement for me.

thanks a lot, nancy.

by lipris 2007-05-11 04:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

One way to look at it is you have an infrastructure and the question is who gets to use that infrastructure.
The 'infrastructure' must then be defined.

Just as when you build a highway, that build-out could potentially support uses other than auto traffic, like advertising, electric lines, rail traffic, money-making rest/service areas.

At some point the use of a given infrastructure for alternate purposes starts to cut into the capacity to support the originally intended purpose.

Internet infrastructure should be defined on the basis of capacity: How much throughput can it support (total bytes per second, etc) or How many customers at a given service level (so many thousand people using such and such speed of DSL)

If the government is essentially paying or even permitting an internet infrastructure, then the govt could mandate that out of the total carrying capacity of that system, X% must remain available to internet as we know it with net neutrality, with excess capacity allowed for other uses.
It could be specified as a percent of total bandwidth or as a fixed amount of bandwidth.
If the govt invests some amount of dollars, it should be clear exactly what sort of net-neutral internet bandwidth is being achieved for that price or permit.

If a brand new fiber system is put in place, specifically for internet, then maybe 100% of capacity would be internet.

But when an existing phone or cable system is modified to also support internet, then someone should define the internet capacity of that infrastructure.
Since upgrades and expansions of phone and cable systems often involve govt funding, approval and oversight, that would be the point to determine what the deal is.

Obviously infrastructure can be used for many purposes, without harming any, and is being so-used already, but what we want to avoid is a shuffle game where rich-content internet quality of service is degraded unless you use pay for a parallel, non-net-neutral pipe.

Saying the internet portion is net neutral is good, but without knowing what part of the infrastructure is dedicated to that purpose, we have no idea if these users will indeed get decent internet, youtube, etc or not.

We want to see a day when millions of people and institutions around the world can launch not only their own blogs, but also internet tv and radio stations, multimedia stations, interactive/rich-content two-way channels, so that a really great culture can happen, to support great education and life-long learning, political engagement, cultural exchange and startup business opportunities.

We don't want to be locked into a situation where 'internet' comes to mean text and low-bandwidth 'old technology' uses, and all the cool stuff can only be done on non-net-neutral private pipes.

Since technology is constantly leaping forward, we can't even imagine or be asked to spell out now all the uses of internet.

Instead we should look at the basic many-to-many, peer-to-peer, people-centric, neutral, open, creative nature of it and make sure the bandwidth will be there and the basic technology (ip packets for now) always supports the vision.

by jimpol 2007-05-11 05:05PM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

The point to make here is that CWA is being inconsistent in its rationale.  The question is why, not whether there's a compromise area.  CWA is lying about at least one part of its argument, that Google pays nothing for hosting.  They are not being clear about whether they want to be IPTV or a non-internet based cable service.

This confuses the issue, as lipris noted, and worse still, confuses the politics.  We should be pressing CWA to clarify their position and not spend our time bending over backwards to confuse our own side.

by Matt Stoller 2007-05-11 05:11PM | 0 recs
Matt --
I'm not going to apologize for trying to create understanding around an issue that some people might find confusing.



The gist of the post is that CWA's position and approach is inconsistent -- including it been internally inconsistent within the organizationn. You might have your approach and I mine, but I aim to do some small part in equiping us to understand these issues in a way that isn't only useful today, but arms us to create a more fair and balanced media and telecom landscape across the board.
by Nancy Scola 2007-05-11 07:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Matt --

I know, and I applaud you for it.  I just think you need to follow this one up with a clarification.  This is a post that confused the issue.

by Matt Stoller 2007-05-12 05:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Matt --

Here's lipris:

i thought i finally had this all figured out and now you go and post this. it's back to befuddlement for me.

thanks a lot, nancy.

That's what I mean.

by Matt Stoller 2007-05-12 05:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Matt --
Yeah, I'll have to leave it to lipris to shed some light on what he meant, but I took it as a bit of kidding. In fact, in a way he was the motivation for this post. Here's what he wrote on Albany Project when he promoted Pete Sikora's post on the NYS telecom reform bill to the front page:

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not terribly literate in telecom issues, but I've been talking lately to folks who certainly are. Topic #1 these days is Assemblyman Brodsky's Telecommunications bill. It has been described to me by more than one person as the "gold standard" in state telecom legislation. Oddly, very few people seem to be paying much attention to it, including the Governor. I asked Pete to post about the bill so we can all learn about it and to start a conversation about what exactly makes it worthy of our support. Thanks to Pete for posting this.

Seems to me that he's interested in understanding the details of telecom reform, a big part of which is net neutrality, which is opposed in New York State and elsewhere by CWA.
by Nancy Scola 2007-05-12 05:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Matt --

honestly, it was a joke. a bad one, apparently.

i am indeed very interested in understanding more about the tech issues involved here and have tried to get a conversation going about them for the purpose of educating non tech folks such as myself. this post serves that aim admirably.

i'm still a bit confused, but i certainly don't blame you. i blame CWA and myself.

by lipris 2007-05-12 07:16AM | 0 recs
Re: Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality

Sorry I came to this post late.

I'm a CWA member, and I've had a couple e-mail exchanges with Larry Cohen over the last week or so.

I tried to get Larry to un-befuddle me about CWA's position. I pointed out that the other countries that exceed our bandwidth capabilities made massive government investments to do it. This is what I got:

"To build from scratch a new internet to every house reaching at least those speeds would cost more than $300B for construction. Given that we have no universal health care (and the cost of that would be similar) it is not realistic to wait for that kind of public investment. Just as importantly you and we have 300,000 brothers and sisters in CWA who work for union telecom companies. We all need to support their careers while also advancing good public policy. Right now the US has NO public policy just markets."

I think CWA is being deliberately obscure in their public announcements, and I think I got Mr. Cohen to get more specific. He counters the argument that restricting bandwidth space for private "cost-plus" to sell would degrade the rest of the Net thus:

"We agree with you that the "public or open internet" from any provider must increase and today's "average" is not sufficient -- When we say that a national goal should be 10mbs down and 1 up that means no part of that should be proprietary, none of it reserved.  Any reserved portion of the pipe must be beyond that.  So the cable service you are using essentially reserves most of its pipe for its set top box and content and then "sells" part of the remainder as open internet.  We want to drive those speeds up and get minimums for upstream speeds as well."

It looks like CWA is trying to be the "power broker" between the net-neutrality activists and the ISPs. They say, "give us a 'baseline' of net speed comparable to Japan's, and we'll advocate for you to sell whatever's BEYOND that to private subscribers. In return, we want guarantees for union workers to get the jobs generated by the rollout, instead of non-union contractors."

But part of their plan is to count on government entities like the FCC and FTC to enforce provisions. That may be a fool's dream.

It's a simple case of getting in bed with the devil, and hoping you don't get fucked.

by Joe Max 2007-05-13 08:50AM | 0 recs

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