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A telecommunications murder/suicide pact?

By Scott Bradner

Australia has a right to be pissed. They can not get anyone to help them pay for their international Internet connections -- they have to pay the full cost themselves. This is quite unlike the telephone world where they only have to pay for half of each international link. But what they have gotten an ITU study group to do to fix the problem seems to be a relatively efficient way to commit technological suicide.

Early this year Australia asked the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) study group 3 (SG3) to study the problem of what they see as an imbalance in who pays for international Internet links. Specifically they requested that "the development of charging, accounting, and settlement principles for services using the Internet Protocol be included in SG3's work program for 2001-2004. But apparently SG3 decided that the problem was a simple one and, after a single meeting, have already proposed a recommendation that will be voted on during the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly at the end of this month in Montreal Canada. The proposal is deceptively simple: (The recommendation and a bunch of supporting documents is at

"Noting the rapid growth of the Internet and Internet based international services:

It is recommended that administrations negotiate and agree bi-lateral commercial arrangements applying to direct international Internet connections whereby each administration will be compensated for the costs that it incurs in carrying traffic that is generated by the other administration."

Basically it says that if you own an international Internet link then you can demand that anyone whoever generates traffic that traverses your link pay you for transporting the traffic. Actually not the original source but the source ISP.

Technically this would be enough of a challenge. You would have to monitor the source addresses of all the traffic on your link and figure out which of 5,000 ISPs to send a bill to and figure out how to send a bill to that mom and pop ISP in Lithuania. But generally the source of Internet traffic is not the same as who requested the information. So if I wanted to watch Internet coverage of the Olympics you would send a bill to some Australian ISP. Since I assume that the source ISP would pass the bill on, why, under this regime, would anyone allow their traffic to go over your link, unless its something of high value such as pornography?

The inescapable result of any link owner attempting to impose such a regulation would be that the country on the end of the link would be cut off from most Internet content. This seems a sure way to marginalize that country. Australia is pushing this proposal. I guess they see an advantage to being marginalized.

The US government, and a number of other countries, has strongly opposed this attempt to impose dying telephone-based regulations on the Internet. For the sake of Australia and other countries like it I hope the opposition is successful in killing the proposal.

disclaimer: Whatever happens, Harvard is in no danger of being marginalized but they have not expressed an opinion on this issue.