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Comcast & Verizon - Foxhole Conversions?
By: Scott Bradner
It's been a strange few weeks for us carrier watchers. First Verizon announced that they were going to open their cell network to all "approved" devices then Comcast announced that have become good buddies with BitTorrent (see http://www.networkworld.com/news/2008/032708-comcast-bittorrent-to-work-together.html and http://www.comcast.com/About/PressRelease/PressReleaseDetail.ashx?PRID=740) and that Comcast would switch to a protocol agnostic method of managing network capacity by the end of the year. These are the same companies that have argued that they could do anything they wanted to with their networks and that no one was going to tell them any different. When a reversal this dramatic happens itŐs a good idea to take a closer look -- in particular at the reasons for the change and to see how real the change might actually be.
The reason for Comcast's advertised change of heart is easy to find. Comcast had done just about everything wrong when they decided to mess up people who were using BitTorrent on the Comcast network. First they lied and claimed that they were doing nothing of the kind, then when caught dead to rights they still lied and said that they were not blocking the traffic, then, on top of that refused to say just what they were doing. (See "I guess truth is not an option for telcos" http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2007/103007-bradner.html) This led to a bunch of news stories and a FCC hearing during which the cable-hating FCC Chair (See FCC: regulating through 3D glasses - http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2007/120407-bradner.html) made it clear that he smelled a rat and would make rules to kill the rat.
Comcast clearly has had a foxhole conversion and is trying to hold off FCC rules that might actually require it to treat its customers fairly -- which would be a terrible fate for a modern carrier. Trusting Comcast's intentions at this point would take a great deal more faith than I have. (See http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=1008271 for another things that Comcast is doing.)
Verizon's adoption of an open-access network model (See http://www.networkworld.com/news/2008/031908-verizon-open-mobile-access.html) after so many years of locking customers into only using phones that Verizon sold is a little harder to explain. I think its great (assuming that the Verizon Open Development (http://www.verizonwireless-opendevelopment.com/) process does not turn into more of a filter than a open door. (Like some prople feat that Apples SDK will "iPhone plus SDK: promise, threat and limits" (http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2008/031108-bradner.html).
I've seen quite a bit of speculation as to why with the most likely being that Verizon won the bidding for a large chunk of the spectrum in the recent FCC auction (http://www.networkworld.com/news/2008/032008-verizon-wireless-wins-large-chunk.html) -- spectrum that comes with Google requested openness requirements. It sure would have been a mess if Verizon allowed openness on only part of their network so using the same rules for all of their customers makes things a lot easier. Thanks Google!!
After the fact the Verizon CEO was quoted as saying that there will be a "new generation of devices, applications and services" and that "no single company ... will be able to envision all these uses or meet all the needs on their own." Good words, they might have even come from own of us network neutrality advocates since this is a key argument in the pro net neutrality argument. Such words are welcome, even if quite tardy. (See Father knows best about net neutrality - http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2006/022006bradner.html)
Some commentators, particularly the ones that have argued against net neutrality all along have quickly seized on these conversions as proof that no new rules are needed to ensure open networks. I am not yet convinced. Note that nothing the Verizon CEO said would stop Verizon from insisting on getting a piece of all transactions that used its network -- not something that would enable new uses by companies without a lot of resources.
disclaimer: Harvard has not issued any opinion as to whether spending its resources to further enrich Verizon would be a good idea so the above caution is my own.