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Tech Industry

Qwest CEO supports tiered Internet

Richard Notebaert says it's a good idea to offer different levels of service for companies like Google and Amazon. Photos: Notebaert, Pulver at VON

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Richard Notebaert, CEO of Qwest Communications, says it's only fair to offer some companies a "competitive edge" in Internet service, for the right price.

Addressing attendees at the Voice on the Net conference at the San Jose Convention Center on Wednesday, Notebaert also said that he opposes blocking traffic on his company's network. But for the first time publicly he said he believes that network operators should have the option to charge content providers, such as Google or Amazon, higher rates for providing premium service over the Qwest network.

"I don't think we ought to block anything on our network, and we won't," he said. "Net neutrality really means that there should be no impediment to traffic. Never has it been intended to mean that companies can't reach commercial agreements with each other to enhance services."

Notebaert at VON

Speculation over phone companies developing a tiered Internet system that would require content companies to pay more for their access has become a hot-button issue in the tech industry, pitting companies such as Google, Yahoo and Amazon against the big phone companies and equipment makers, such as Cisco Systems. The issue has also made its way to Capital Hill, where some lawmakers are developing rules to maintain so-called Net neutrality--also called network neutrality--and prevent the emergence of a tiered system.

Unlike AT&T's CEO, Ed Whitacre, who said that he didn't want Google to get a free ride on the AT&T network, Notebaert--whose company is the smallest of the Baby Bells--took a more tactful approach to the subject. He said that he views content providers like Google and Amazon as customers. And he wants to work with them so they can provide better service to their customers.

As an example, he compared what carriers could do for content owners to how companies like L.L. Bean deal with Federal Express and UPS. The Maine-based clothing and outdoor goods retailer pays these companies to offer free shipping and handling during the holiday season to its customers. He believes that online companies should be allowed to work out similar deals with network providers in an effort to get a leg up over their competitors.

"Would this give some content providers an advantage over others?" he asked the crowd rhetorically. "Well, yeah. We're all trying to provide a little bit of differentiation for a competitive edge. That's what business is about."

Notebaert was careful not to name names, but he implied that companies such as Amazon and Google, which are lobbying Congress to impose new laws guaranteeing Net neutrality, have already approached Qwest about lining up such deals.

"It's possible that (these companies) would like to have differentiated service," he said. "And if you have enough money, we can make a lot of things happen."

Jeff Pulver, CEO of, the company putting on the VON conference in here this week, doesn't share Notebaert's views on Net neutrality. He believes that network owners should not be allowed to play favorites on their networks or act as gatekeepers, charging different rates for different levels of service. But he acknowledged that some companies may be hedging their bets on the issue.

"I think it's probably true that companies are coming to Qwest willing to pay for better treatment on their network," he said. "But I think they're doing it out of fear. It's legalized extortion."