Monday, March 24, 2008

"Network Neutrality" -- Life or Death For Independent ISPs

This is an issue to which every independent ISP -- wireless or not -- must pay attention. The regulations and legislation that are now being proposed will threaten the businesses of all independent ISPs. This is vital, folks! If independent ISPs don't get active on this issue, you may all be toast.

While WISPS are thankful that winter is over and are gearing up for spring, the FCC and Congress are considering regulations and laws that would put them out of business.

The issue: "Network Neutrality." Originally a benign concept which simply stated that ISPs should not leverage their positions in anticompetitive ways (e.g. the cable company blocking online video or the telcos blocking VoIP), the term has now been "hijacked" by vested interests who seek to impose regulations that would prevent ISPs from managing their bandwidth, blocking ports used by worms, preventing P2P from taking over their networks, or even selling different connection speeds at different prices!

What is amazing is that the FCC and Congressional aides have had little or no contact/discussions with any small ISP or WISP... and that they had been told repeatedly by advocates of "Network Neutrality" that competition for the cable and telephone companies was dead! They still apparently believe this, and are preparing to unleash regulations and legislation that will deal serious blows to cable companies and telcos but could very easily kill small ISPs and WISPs.

All independent ISPs, and especially WISPs, need to speak out on this issue.

WISPA filed no comments or reply comments in the proceeding, nor has it filed any ex parte memoranda in the docket. (You file an ex parte memorandum when you go to speak to staff or Commissioners at the FCC about an issue.) So, it does not appear to be lobbying at all on this important issue. The only ISP trade association that has filed anything is Part-15.org (Michael Anderson), and that filing was short, vague, and (based on comments from staffers within the FCC) insufficiently persuasive. ISPs and especially WISPs need to speak up on this issue. The proposed regulations would prevent you from throttling or blocking P2P .... allowing it to take over your networks and rob your bandwidth for the benefit of companies that use it to distribute content. They might also force you to charge by the bit, raising your prices and/or making it impossible for you to compete with wired services in areas where you overlap with them. One FCC Commissioner has stated that he wants the FCC to make up rules as it goes along, penalizing ISPs on a complaint basis without any prior warning of what behavior might be penalized. It's unfortunate that independent ISPs seem utterly blind to the fact that all of this is going on! That's why independent ISPs need to form a coalition to address this specific issue. If you do not, you'll likely be blindsided by regulations that make it impossible for you to continue in business.

Some of you believe that it is your job to provide bandwidth, not to decide what end users do with that bandwidth. To me, it is obvious that Comcast's practice of playing man in the middle with PTP traffic is wrong, immoral, and bad for the network. In markets where Comcast is the only option, it is understandable that users are screaming for regulation. If their network, or your network for that matter, is being taken over by PTP then they are selling too much bandwidth to their users at too low a price. Perhaps they should re-structure their service plans to include per-month bandwidth caps or fees for usage over $X. A move away from advertising insanely high speeds on oversold connections with a 1 to 100 over-subscription would be a win for all of you

On the other hand, Service providers need to be able to prioritize traffic in a uniform manner by type while being prohibited from managing traffic by source or destination. If you are prioritizing VOIP traffic to your own VOIP service, you should be required to prioritize VOIP traffic to any other destination.

Right now, there are a large number of organizations arrayed against you. An organization called the "Network Neutrality Squad" is advocating that the government regulate and micromanage ISPs. Some of its demands include that ISPs not operate caching Web proxies, not block Port 25 to limit SPAM, not prioritize traffic (even VoIP), and not limit bandwidth hogging by P2P.

The EFF, a group called "Save the Internet", and a number of commercial enterprises (e.g. Vuze, Inc. and BitTorrent, Inc.) whose businesses use P2P to dump costs on ISPs ..... have also been very active. And small, independent ISPs have been no-shows at the FCC hearing at Harvard, at the hearing two weeks ago before the House Judiciary Committee's Antitrust subcommittee, and in virtually every other forum on the subject to date.

The FCC will be having a second hearing at Stanford University in mid-April, and ISPs need to call the Commission and ask to be on the panel. You also need to file comments in FCC Docket 07-52 and visit with the Commissioners and their staffs. You also need to call your Congressmen and Senators, especially if they sit on the House Commerce Committee, and get in on the Congressional hearings. At this point, you must take immediate and strident action to turn the tide, because it is running very much against you -- mainly due to your failure to speak up.

You need to speak up, as most lawmakers are totally oblivious when it comes to the internet and are apt to propose, and even pass, inane laws and regulations. However, you should take a long look at your own practices and advocate what is right over what is best for your business model.

See this "Seven Principles" document for one person's take on what's reasonable to demand of ISPs and what is not -- as well as the reciprocal responsibilities of users and content providers.

I'm concerned that so many WISPS are ignoring this potentially dangerous legislation. You can NOT ignore these issues and assume they will go away or evolve into a reasonable and logical determination that will support you. You MUST be proactive and your comments MUST stay pointed and on topic.

Or you can just blindly go about your business and let things happen to you.

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