Closing the Gap with CWA on Net Neutrality
by Nancy Scola, Fri May 11, 2007 at 02:22:42 PM EDT
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?