AT&T Versus The Future
If consumers and competition win, there will eventually be no dividing line between your phones (mobile and home line), your computer, your Internet access, and your TV. Ideally, it all merges into one, consumers have a choice of providers of all those services, and the providers do nothing but provide access. You can attach whatever you like that doesn’t harm the network. You can download anything legal. You can use whichever service available.
In short, the consumer has lots of choices and lots of freedom and doesn’t have to pay at every single step. This is the ultimate goal of net neutrality, to preserve consumer freedom once all media converge.
But AT&T didn’t build a $158 billion market cap atop the shoulders of consumer choice. The company didn’t get where it is today by playing softball with regulators either. Every step of the regulatory way, the company has cried and hollered about how regulation would kill it and the whole industry.
The ability to plug any type of phone you like into your wall? Ma Bell didn’t like that idea—they had perfectly good phones that all looked alike and only they could fix. The legislation allowing you to attach an answering machine to the line? Why that would kill the long distance industry. Now it’s net neutrality that’s a bad idea.
It’s only a bad idea, though, for providers bent on squeezing as much as they can from their customers and giving as little as possible in return. Though telecoms and cable companies had argued net neutrality was a solution in search of problem because there wasn’t enough evidence of anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior, providers have since gone to great lengths to prove themselves wrong.
The latest example of this comes as netbooks become both popular and subsidized by wireless phone companies and as the dividing line between mobile phones and computers are continually erased. AT&T answers that dilemma by changing its wireless terms of service to forbid peer-to-peer downloading and “customer initiated redirection of television or other video or audio signals via any technology from a fixed location to a mobile device.”
All that customer euphoria about Skype on iPhone? Don’t get used to it. AT&T plans to block access to VoiP as well. And of course they would. Skype’s an obvious competitor, as is any service delivering TV in the era of AT&T’s U-Verse.
AT&T is doing all it can to avoid becoming a system of dumb pipes, which is what consumers really want. Instead, they want things to remain in the golden age of mobile, where minutes are costly, text messages are marked up 7000 percent, users are locked into contracts, and nobody has the faintest chance of competing with them.
In a letter to the FCC, the new chairman of which was appointed by net neutrality supporter President Obama, FreePress is urging the regulatory commission not to allow this, to ensure wireless broadband is treated the same way as wired broadband:
"Wireless broadband networks cannot become a safe haven for discrimination," said Chris Riley, policy counsel of Free Press. "The Internet in your pocket should be just as free and open as the Internet in your home. The FCC must make it crystal clear that a closed Internet will not be tolerated on any platform."
Telcos and cable companies argue it’s all about network management. TimeWarner is expanding its bandwidth cap experiment to four new cities. Comcast has set its download caps as well. The cable industry’s current situation is slightly different, dealing with copper wiring in neighborhood share models.
However, all network management arguments are 20th century arguments based on 20th century networks. Though they should be becoming quickly moot, what is happening instead is providers are upgrading networks to eventual limitless capacity in very graduated, carefully paced stages.
In five or ten years (less?), networks will be very different, and capabilities will be hugely advanced. Customers will be able to take the Internet and the TV anywhere and have unlimited choices, wireless or wired, on any size screen or device, and pay a flat rate for access to all of it. And that’s what providers are trying to avoid.
Though it will still be profitable for providers, it will be obscenely profitable if providers can block off any trace of competition and control and separate every screen, and boost preferred content, and that’s how they want it, naturally.
Net neutrality, then, becomes about not letting them control the market but about boosting the market’s (consumer’s) ability to control them. Innovation will thrive as always, and when the Internet swallows up TV and the rest of media, making it a hugely powerful force many would like to control for reasons other than profit, then no handful of people will be able to tell you what you can or can’t access.