Consumer groups have linked Cisco to the contentious debate over cable "open access" to AT&T's networks and peripherally, into the more cerebral discussion concerning who will effectively control Net content in the future.
The debates follow AT&T's huge financial bets on the broadband market, leaving some industry observers as well as competitors to fear that the high-speed Net could fall under the control of a select few firms. The issue is broader than the current battle by ISPs to gain access to cable networks, but the issues are intertwined in many respects.
The catalyst for the groups' concern is a marketing brochure on Cisco equipment distributed at a recent gathering of the cable industry in Chicago. In the document--called a "white paper"--the company explains how a network operator, such as a cable company, could block access to certain Web sites and give preferential treatment to certain types of traffic flowing across a network.
The advocacy groups, which include the Media Access Project and the Center for Media Education, among others, admit that Cisco is only one of several companies that offer such technology. Yet that hasn't deterred them from dragging one of the leading providers of equipment for the Net into the broader battle for government regulation of the Internet.
The consumer groups want federal regulators to regulate the evolution of the Net--particularly as high-speed, or broadband, access becomes more prevalent. They believe that if government does not police the industry, companies will police themselves--and customers will suffer.
These advocacy groups believe the white paper offers evidence that companies could take advantage of certain management technologies if they are not under regulators' watchful eye.
"This document demonstrates what the cable companies would like to see come out of the technology," said Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, a 26-year-old public interest law firm. "This is in no way a condemnation of Cisco, this is a condemnation of the customers of Cisco.
"It clearly exemplified the type of policy we feel cable companies will pursue," she said.
Another advocate echoed the same concerns. "The target here isn't Cisco, the vehicle is Cisco," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education.
The groups sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard earlier this week. In the letter, the marketing literature from Cisco is quoted from several times--used as an example of what a cable operator could do to dictate what content a Web user sees.
Kennard, however, has professed no interest in regulating the Net, choosing to let the medium evolve free of government intervention.
Educating the masses
Cisco says the uproar stems from a simple misunderstanding.
"I think it derived from a misunderstanding about how ubiquitous this technology is to all networks, whether it's ISPs, phone companies, cable companies, or satellite companies," said Tom Galvin, a Cisco spokesman.
"As a supplier of this technology to all providers, we don't make a distinction among them," he said. "There was a misunderstanding about the technology. We certainly didn't help with our white paper."
In the literature titled "Controlling your network--A must for cable operators," software technology often referred to as Quality of Service, or QoS, is explained in detail. The QoS features can be used on a variety of networks, not just cable-based systems.
Consumer advocates contend that Cisco was not the target of their complaints, but served only as a means to explain what could happen to a cable industry left to its own devices.
"I just want to make sure the next-generation Internet is open and diverse," said Chester. "[Cisco's document] was the first time I had seen in writing how it would work. To me, it illustrated my concern."
Chester equated the role of cable companies on the Net as that of private "security guards" that can choose what type of content is displayed, rather than the preferred "traffic cop" that simply directs Net content.
Caught in the middle
Cisco counts Internet service providers (ISPs) and cable companies as its customers--two sides that are now fighting over access to high-speed cable networks. Third-party ISPs like America Online contend they should have the right to offer their subscribers Net access using the cable networks owned by the likes of AT&T.
In a statement, AOL came to the defense of Cisco, pointing out the difference between their contentious battle with cable companies and the networking equipment maker's technology.
"While we have differences with the cable industry over the open access issue, we have no problem with Cisco's Quality of Service (QoS) technology. It is the fact that the cable companies operate in a closed environment, not this technology, that is the issue," AOL said.
AT&T also clarified its position: "We are not in the content management business, we're in the network management business," spokesman Mark Siegel told Reuters.