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Making all that is new old again


By Scott Bradner


This Internet thing has gotten just too good for its own good.  This was made ever more clear in two December events.


The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a one-day Voice over IP Forum last December 1 in Washington DC. (Information, presentations and a webcast can be found at The FCC Commissioners wanted to hear opinions from a variety of people on what, if anything, the FCC should do to regulate voice over IP.


The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) hosted the first phase of The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) from December 10th through 12th in Geneva Switzerland.  (Information, presentations and final documents for the summit can be found at  The meeting was held to discuss the impact of the new information-based society on different parts of the world and to discuss what new governance mechanisms, if any, is needed for the Internet.


Lots of varied opinions on a variety of topics were expressed at both meetings but there was a clear undercurrent present in both.  The traditional telcom folks, both providers and regulators, seem to feel that there is no bad regulation or at the very least living without regulations would be bad.


A European telcom regulator told me a few years ago "This voice over Internet thing is not very good. It's getting better and as soon as it gets good enough we will regulate it to be sure that it stays good."  I replied that such regulatory attitudes might be a good reason to never get VoIP quite good enough to trigger such regulations.  The regulator professed to not understand what I meant.


Underlying the regulator's comment to me and underlying many of the discussions at the ITU and at the FCC is the assumption that the phone service provided by voice over IP will be just like the traditional phone service.  Too many traditional telcoms folks seem to want to just use all of the potential and flexibility of the Internet to replicate existing services.  Forcing new wine to be presented in old bottles to reapply an overused phrase.


Applying regulations or governance models developed for technology infrastructures that are quickly becoming obsolete is a reasonably reliable way to minimize the ability to make use of the innovation potential present in the Internet.  But that is just what a lot of people seem to want to do.  I guess they fear the uncertainty inherent in times of innovation.


The FCC has formed an Internet Policy Working Group to assist the FCC in thinking about the policy aspects of Internet-based telcom services and WSIS asked that a United Nations task force be created to explore Internet governance issues.  The future of the Internet as an engine for the future may be largely determined by the work of these two groups over the next year. 


This may seem to be an overly pessimistic view coming from someone who has been as strong a believer in the ability of the Internet to get around the roadblocks erected by traditional telcom for so long.  The difference is that I think the Internet is now well passed the threshold where we can 'just do it' and has moved into an era where we have to pay attention to the people that can put you in jail if you ignore them.


disclaimer: Some people think that you should sometimes pay attention to Harvard even if they can not put you in jail on their own but I do not know the university position on this topic.