On the Subject of Verizon, Google, AT&T, and Net Neutrality

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This whole Google/Verizon net neutrality debate has reached critical mass and is quickly entering the “beating a dead horse” territory, but AT&T threw a bit more gasoline on the fire last Friday with its “Wireless is Different” post on the company’s Public Policy Blog.

As the title suggests, the post asserts that wireless internet is different from hard-wired broadband internet. This is not to be confused with Wi-Fi, which is a short range wireless-ification of hard-wired broadband via a router. There are too many vaguely similar terms being thrown around, so let’s use “mobile internet” and “home internet” to describe what AT&T, Verizon, and Google are talking about.

To recap the debate, Google and Verizon think that home internet from the likes of Comcast or Time Warner or FiOS or whatever you use at your house should be left alone. Why? Because the pipeline into your house is relatively big and fast and can, in a very simple sense, pretty much handle whatever you and everyone around you are trying to download without buckling much.

The same can’t be said for mobile internet. If you’ve ever been to a big concert or sporting event or any place where thousands of people are trying to use their iPhones at the same time, AT&T’s network buckles pretty hard. It happens to other networks too—Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.—but it’s more prevalent on AT&T because so many people have iPhones. Some would also argue that AT&T’s network and overall coverage isn’t as good as its competitors, which may or may not be true. Watch what happens to Verizon if and when it gets an iPhone, though.


What Verizon and AT&T want, and what Google’s given up on fighting against, is to differentiate the idea of home and mobile internet service. The hands-off approach that works for home internet doesn’t work for mobile internet since, according to AT&T at least, there’s “insatiable demand” for mobile data that must be delivered over “wireless networks of finite and shared resources.” The pipe is much smaller, in other words.

So if you’re AT&T or Verizon, how do you deal with insatiable demand over a finite pipeline? Sell fewer phones and sign fewer people up for two-year contracts until you can deliver those 3G speeds you’ve been talking about in all your ads? No way, you’ve got a bottom line to protect! You sell as many phones and activate as many new customers as you can and then selectively throttle their connections when your network starts to buckle.

Or as AT&T puts it, “In order to provide consumers with the high quality wireless broadband services that they demand, wireless carriers must be able to dynamically manage traffic and operate their networks in an environment free from burdensome, arbitrary and unnecessary regulations.”

That plan sounds semi-reasonable given the notion that mobile companies aren’t going to artificially restrict the number of handsets available on their networks. The problem—and what consumers and the press are going ape about—is that “an environment free from burdensome, arbitrary and unnecessary regulations” leaves the door open for the likes of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and any other mobile operator to go beyond simply throttling traffic once their networks start to choke.

Imagine if Google, who owns YouTube and has plenty of money, went to all the mobile operators and said, “Hey, we’ll give you guys each a million bucks a month if you don’t throttle traffic to YouTube, Google, Gmail, or any of our other products.” The next time you’re at the Red Sox game, all the sites that Google owns would load right up while Discount Doug’s Better Than Gmail E-mail Service doesn’t load up or takes a long time to load up because everyone at Fenway is on their phones at the same time.

Eventually people would be less and less likely to use Discount Doug’s Better Than Gmail E-mail Service because they’d say, “Even though Doug’s really is better, Gmail works much faster on my phone so I’m sticking with Google.”

Doug goes out of business because he couldn’t afford to pay for priority traffic and the next Doug that comes along doesn’t even bother trying to create a better e-mail system or search engine or video sharing site at all. What’s the point? The ability for small players to innovate and compete drops dramatically when the big guys can pay for their own express lane.

But this stuff only pertains to mobile internet access, so why worry too much about it? Because mobile internet will eventually replace home internet, just like home broadband internet replaced dial-up. It’s happening already as more and more people use their phones as their primary internet devices and 4G mobile networks slowly begin to blanket the country.

That’s where Google really gets caught up in the middle of all this. Its position is that home internet should be open, equal, and indiscriminate, which is friendly to consumers and innovators alike. However, the company is positioning its own strategy as “mobile first.”

In other words: Google sees the internet’s future, and the future is mobile.

While most people halfway expect to get jerked around by their mobile company in the interest of profits, Google’s supposed “Don’t Be Evil” mantra and its newfound coziness with the carriers thanks to the Android platform has a lot of people feeling a bit betrayed.

More on Techland: Google and Verizon Push For Open Internet, Net Neutrality Still In Effect

photo: flickr