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Broadband giants say Net neutrality fears are misguided

Verizon, AT&T offer companies special pipes. They want to extend that concept to content delivery. Photo: Ciccone, Tauke talk

LAS VEGAS--Executives from the two largest phone companies in the U.S. have tried to set the record straight on Net neutrality by explaining the kinds of service their companies would like to offer content providers.

Tom Tauke, executive vice president for public affairs for Verizon Communications, and Jim Cicconi, senior executive vice president for AT&T, said at the TelecomNext trade show here on Wednesday that their companies have no intention of degrading or blocking other companies' traffic that rides over the public Internet.

Instead AT&T and Verizon would simply like to offer content companies, such as Google and Movielink, virtual pipes directly to consumers over their broadband connections that would allow these content companies to make sure users at home have a good experience accessing their content.

Net neutrality, which centers on whether carriers should be able to charge different fees to content providers who access their network, has been a hotly debated topic in the industry for several weeks as several lawmakers draft legislation that addresses the issue.

"There's been a misconception about the network we are building and how we plan to deliver services," said Cicconi. "What we plan to do amounts to creating dedicated services."

AT&T and Verizon already offer dedicated pipes to consumers for Internet Protocol-based TV services. Because they are providing the video service themselves to their own customer base, they control movie packets from the time they enter the network until they reach the subscriber at home.

Cicconi said it is unreasonable for companies offering competing video services that travel over the public Internet to demand AT&T offer the same quality it provides through its dedicated service.

"This debate is all about movies," he said. "A handful of companies who have plans to stream movies want to ensure their product is as good as ours. Or they want ours to be dumbed down for them."

Cicconi said that trying to achieve the same level of quality for video over the public Internet would be too expensive, because it requires extra equipment and network resources.

"If someone wants an equivalent level of service as what we provide, you have to provide them a dedicated service," he said. "And we can't do that for free."

Some Net neutrality proponents say they understand the phone companies' argument but they're concerned the phone companies will abuse their power since they're offering competing services.

"I don't oppose tiered services and VPNs (virtual private networks) to consumers," said John Sumpter, vice president of regulatory affairs for PacWest. "I just don't want them discriminating against anyone else in favor of their own service."

To fully appreciate what kinds of new services AT&T and Verizon hope to offer some day, people must first understand how the Internet works. The Internet is made up of a collection of networks, each owned by different network providers.

Because no one carrier controls the Internet, companies such as Verizon or AT&T can only control packets on their portion of the network. Once those packets hop to another network, they have no control.

This free-for-all delivery system means that sometimes packets hit congestion and are delayed. This isn't a problem for applications like e-mail, but for video and voice traffic, which are sensitive to delays, it can be a problem. This is why video viewed over the Internet is often choppy or is interrupted.

To ensure that the quality of these applications is up to snuff, carriers like AT&T and Verizon could create what are called virtual private networks or VPNs.

Up to this point, Verizon and AT&T have offered these dedicated VPNs to business customers, who use them to link offices together throughout the country and the world. Because AT&T and Verizon can manage the network, they can guarantee service quality and ensure security of the content. This allows companies to deploy services such as voice over IP and streaming video.

Tauke and Cicconi said the same technology could be used to offer VPNs from content providers to consumers. And because video is an application that requires a high level of service guarantees, companies offering these services could find the VPN service appealing.

"The bottom line is, we have built and managed VPNs for a long time," said Tauke. "There's speculation that in the future we will introduce a service that provides VPNs from companies directly to consumers."

AT&T and Verizon's acquisitions of long-distance carriers AT&T and MCI last year have helped make this kind of business-to-consumer VPN service possible. The reason is that now AT&T and MCI own not only the broadband access network to consumers but also the long-distance network that could, for example, connect Google's servers in California to the broadband networks connected to consumers' homes.

But Net neutrality supporters such as Sumpter believe that allowing the phone companies to have so much power over how content is delivered into the home could be dangerous. He believes the phone companies could try to push competitors out of the market by charging unreasonably high fees for their VPNs.

"What I'm concerned about is the phone companies charging Google or someone like them a much higher price than what they charge their own affiliate offering a similar video service," he said.

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