AT&T Crying Uncle Is Kinda Sorta A Milestone

    January 2, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

The biggest merger in telecommunications history was approved quietly at the end of the news day Thursday just before the world stopped caring for a few days. Gerald Ford and James Brown are dead, a new year is upon us, and AT&T was forced to admit there is such a thing as Network Neutrality.

That the Federal Communications Commission required concessions on the concept in order for AT&T to merge with Bell South is a milestone, even if the stone is made of lip service, is true enough at this point for Net Neutrality supporters given that for the past year the telecommunications industry and the federal government have fought tooth and nail against a so-called myth (or “fetish,” as Senator Ted Stevens called it).

For a year’s time, they said I don’t know what that is but I’m against it. They were so against it they spent millions trying to ensure that they didn’t have to admit anything.

But here they are, at the end of a yearlong headlock at least crying uncle, a little, well just enough to end the torture for now.

Though AT&T’s concessions are hardly binding, as FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin and Commissioner Deborah Taylor pointed out later, the telecom giant’s acknowledgment that Net Neutrality is more than fairy tale is enough to spur pages of explanations for what it all means.

The focus has been on this signed confession, bulldogged into the agreement (PDF)by FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein:

AT&T/BellSouth also commits that it will maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband Internet access service. This commitment shall be satisfied by AT&T/BellSouth’s agreement not to provide or to sell to Internet content, application, or service providers, including those affiliated with AT&T/BellSouth, any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet transmitted over AT&T/BellSouth’s wireline broadband Internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination.

This is “binding” for 24 months, or just long enough, as the optimists say, for Congress to pass meaningful legislation. In addition, AT&T agreed to offer low-cost DSL service at around $20 per month to make DSL prices more competitive all around. Also, the behemoth company agreed to divest large amounts of wireless spectrum to encourage wireless broadband competition.

Columbia law professor Timothy Wu, who is widely regarded as the architect of Net Neutrality language called the concessions a milestone because it’s “the first strong Network Neutrality language yet seen in any broadband regulatory device.” At, Wu provides a lengthy analysis of the merger agreement. Among the more memorable explanations:

It forbids AT&T from, for example, selling Yahoo or CNN priority access to its customers over its broadband networks, and favoring those content sources over unaffiliated blogs or search engines.

AT&T, under this agreement, may speed all the Internet video traffic on its network (to compete, for example, with cable). But it cannot pick and choose whose video traffic to speed up. In short, AT&T must treat like traffic alike–that is the essence of the agreement.

Wu also goes into the exceptions, which have caused some doubts as the real reach of the concessions. AT&T will still be allowed to direct traffic for IPTV, which Wu differentiates from the larger Internet, and can also regulate at the server side (i.e., not end-user side) and especially at the Internet backbone.

[IPTV] services are IP in name only. They are in practice and architecture a direct competitor to cable television services. These services use only the private infrastructure built by AT&T, and do not rely on the public Internet as described by IP addresses. Hence the exclusion of private IPTV services should be considered less controversial. In fact, were the Network Neutrality rules to apply to IPTV, it is doubtful that AT&T could offer its competing cable television services, leaving the cable market with even less competition.

Despite that the language and concessions are major steps forward for the Net Neutrality movement. A subsequent uproar comes when Chairman Martin and Commissioner Taylor (both Republican and opposed to Net Neutrality) release a statement saying AT&T is under no real obligation to follow it’s own concessions, which is at the same time frustrating for proponents and a boon for the cause of legislation.

From Martin and Taylor’s statement:

Importantly, however, while the Democrat Commissioners may have extracted concessions from AT&T, they in no way bind future Commission action. Specifically, a minority of Commissioners cannot alter Commission precedent or bind future Commission decisions, policies, actions, or rules.

Thus, to the extent that AT&T has, as a business matter, determined to take certain actions, they are allowed to do so. There are certain conditions, however, that are not self-effectuating or cannot be accomplished by AT&T alone. To the extent Commission action is required to effectuate these conditionsas a policy going forward, we specifically do not support those aspects of the conditions and will oppose such policies going forward.

For example, today’s order does not mean that the Commision has adopted an additional net neutrality principle. We continue to believe such a requirement is not necessary and may impede infrastructure deployment. Thus, although AT&T may make a voluntary business decision, it cannot dictate or bind government policy. Nor does this order.

So what we’re left with here, this victory and milestone in Internet history, is AT&T admitting such a thing exists so long as they don’t really have to do anything about it, which is enough for rubber stamps to come bounding out every exit in Washington.


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