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A Telcom regulation pipe dream


By Scott Bradner


There is a new version ( out of the draft telcom reform bill that I wrote about a while back ("Misunderstanding the fundamentals of telecom reform" - and from the not very good start it's heading in a worse direction. 


The committee staff seems to be drinking the same KoolAid mixed by the big telcom carriers that the FCC has been drinking.  The KoolAid causes the drinkers to hallucinate that the big telcom plans for closed, vertically integrated, everybody has to pay the carrier for everything, silos are better for the customers and the country than the open Internet has proven to be.  (To see what big telcom is thinking see SBC Communications Inc. Chairman Edward E. Whitacre Jr.'s interview with Business Week magazine on how Google and other Internet services are using "for free" the Internet connections SBC's customers already pay for.)  The House bill and the FCC mutter good-sounding words about network neutrality but then eviscerate the same words with pro-carrier caveats. 


I expect that it would be possible to design a telecom regulatory regime that would actually be good for the users and the country but I doubt we will see any such thing out of Washington (unless Google's lobbyists learn a lot (and quickly) by watching the well-connected RBOC lobbyists.   


Imagineering more than a little bit, just what might "good" telcom regulation include?  What would I do if it were up to me?


First, like the house bill, I'd preempt all local and state controls but I'd go further and also eliminate all local franchise fees.


Then I'd split the problem into two spaces, facilities owners and service providers.  I would not differentiate between the types of facilities (pipes) like the house bill does - in the IP age pipes are pipes, not video pipes or phone pipes.


In my regulations a pipe owner could keep the facility to itself and offer its own phone, Internet or video service (i.e. no forced open access to facilities) or it could allow access on whatever (equal) terms it wanted to anyone who wanted to provide Internet service but it could not concurrently offer Internet service and any other service.  Pipe owners should also have reasonable access to conduits and poles.


An "Internet service" is just that, unimpeded and unrestricted access to the Internet and Internet-based services.  An Internet service provider would be prohibited from interfering in any way with traffic to or from a customer except at the express request of that customer or from favoring one service provider over another.  (For example, a customer could order a ISP-provided and run firewall if they wanted to.)  Internet service providers, but not providers of higher level services, would have to obey any court-ordered requests for wire tapping from law enforcement.  End-to-end encryption might make the wiretaps less useful than they might be but "so it goes."


I assume that video and voice (VoIP) services will become just Internet-based services without any need to establish special rules for them.  E911-like location services would have to be enabled by Internet service providers for all service providers using the Internet service, including VoIP providers.


Obviously, these rules would not make Mr. Whitacre very happy because he could not extort extra money from Internet-based services just to leave them alone.  But leave them alone he must.


disclaimer:  Harvard has schools that train people to actually create regulations - clearly I did not ask them for help in the above so its my own opinion.