After much wrangling, AT&T and BellSouth have agreed to network neutrality conditions in order to secure FCC approval of their merger. The key provision of the agreement, which lasts two years, is the following:
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/BellSouthâ€™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/BellSouthâ€™s wireline broadband Internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination.”
Tim Wu, a leading network neutrality advocate, praises the agreement, saying we may look back on it as a milestone in Internet history. It’s certainly a tribute to the forces advocating network neutrality that AT&T agreed to something quite similar to the stronger network neutrality bills floated in Congress. The question, though, is what this really means.
I suspect one reason AT&T caved is that it realized that the “access tiering” network neutrality advocates are so incensed about wouldn’t actually work. Or at least, AT&T won’t have a service offering generating significant revenue from Internet content and application providers in the next two years.
When you look closely at the technical and business case for the kind of quality of service mechanisms that access tiering implies (as I do in a paper I’m working on), they become pretty shaky. What AT&T really wants is the ability to do is shape traffic on a per-application basis. And this agreement doesn’t prevent that. Blocking or degrading all BitTorrent traffic, or all VOIP traffic, is permitted; just not degradation based on the specific company that offers the service. The practices that the network neutrality argument originally attacked — blocking ports, limiting services like streaming video, and generally tilting the playing field for Internet applications — are not prohibited under this agreement (which, it should be noted, applies only to AT&T). There is just a general commitment that AT&T will comport its business in line with the FCC’s broadband policy statement. And the loophole in the agreement for IPTV, which isn’t subject to the network neutrality provisions, could be significant if AT&T tries to stuff more services into that platform.
The agreement is certainly a victory for network neutrality. And overall, that’s a good thing for the future of the Net. However, I have a feeling that, in the grand scheme of things, there is less here than meets the eye.