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Father knows best
By Scott Bradner
Testifying at a February 7th Senate Commerce Committee hearing Vint Cerf, often called the Father of the Internet, asked the Senators to not let the phone companies mess up the architectural model of the Internet. Following him, Walter McCormick, Jr., president of the US Telecom Association, said that the telecom companies will not do any of the evil things that Vint was worried about but asked the Senators to not block their ability to do so.
There were many other speakers and many of the committee members let us know their opinions but, in the end the choice in this hearing was between the telecom folk that wanted the ability to extort money from companies using the Internet to deliver services to their customers and those who worried that anything of the sort would kill the generative powers of the Internet.
The hearing (Streaming video at http://commerce.senate.gov/archive.netneutrality020706.ram) concerned "Net Neutrality." Pure "Net Neutrality" would mean that an Internet service provider (ISP) would not be able to differentiate their processing of different types of traffic. The alternative to a neutral network is an environment where the ISP could differentiate their processing of different types of traffic based on whatever grounds they wanted. The most commonly mentioned reasons for such differentiation are 1/ that an ISP offering services such as video or voice runs their own traffic and at a higher priority than traffic from others offering competing services and 2/ that a service provider, such as Google or Vonage, pays the ISP money to get their traffic prioritized. (See "Blocking the power of the Internet" http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2006/011606bradner.html)
Vint was quite eloquent, as he is wont to be, in both is oral and written testimony. (See http://commerce.senate.gov/hearings/witnesslist.cfm?id=1705 for a list of witnesses & links to their formal testimony.) He, along with a number of other witnesses described the current state of competition in broadband services to different parts of the country. (The state is not very good - only half of the customers get any choice at all and a significant percentage have no way to get broadband Internet access at all.) They worried that letting the ISPs (almost all telephone companies and cable TV companies) decide what content and applications their customers could get quality access to would destroy the ability of new services to get started because they could not afford to pay the ISPs to get reasonable quality access to the ISP's customers. One of this group, Gary Bachula, a VP of Internet2 (http://www.internet2.edu/), said that there was no reason for any traffic prioritization -- Internet2 research had shown that adding bandwidth was cheaper and better.
The other side said they would never "block, impair, or degrade content, applications or services." (McCormick who made this vow, was forced later in the hearing to admit that some ISPs were already blocking access to some services.) This group painted a dire picture of no additional deployment of broadband ISPs because the ISPs would not be able to get enough money for the service to pay for the deployment. They were quite careful to not say just what they would do that did not involve blocking etc to get the money -- we are left to guess.
This hearing came down to one group, including the father of the Internet saying that it is not time to break the model that created today's incredibly important and dynamic Internet and another group saying that the Internet will stop expanding unless they could somehow get someone other than their customers to give them money to do what their customer already paid them to do. This is a case of Father Knows Best.
disclaimer: No school operating in loco parentis always knows best, not even Harvard, but the above opinion on fatherly knowledge is my own.