Former FCC Chairman Powell: Net Neutrality 'Doing Great'

Now private citizen Michael Powell says consumers are winning in what he sees as a "business scrum" between content and service companies.

Paul Kapustka, Contributor

February 20, 2006

3 Min Read

BOULDER, Colo. -- Even as the debate about Network Neutrality heats up and spawns headline-grabbing rhetorical fury, the man who started it all -- former FCC chairman Michael Powell -- can kick back, relax, and say that his so-called Internet Freedoms are "doing great."

Two years removed and a few rows back from the same place where he first outlined the "freedoms" from his bully pulpit, the now-private-citizen Powell sees the current debate as mostly a "scrum" between big businesses like Verizon and Google, with consumers as the immediate beneficiaries.

"I think the Internet Freedoms are doing great," said Powell, who is scheduled to give a keynote speech Monday at the Silicon Flatirons telecommunications program's yearly conference on telecom regulatory issues, held here on the University of Colorado campus. Because of his public proclamation of the Freedoms -- and some timely action taken last year -- Powell said that there are no perceptible transgressions against consumers, and that service providers would now be "crucified" by their customers should they try to limit access to the Internet.

When Powell made the Freedoms declaration here at the Silicon Flatirons program two years ago, he said that there were many unanswered questions about how service providers might or might not limit competing applications that would run across their broadband lines.

"The concrete was just being poured, and things weren't really set yet," said audience member Powell during a break in Sunday's proceedings, some of which focused directly on the Network Neutrality question. Whether or not cable operators or telecom service providers actually ever planned to block services from independent operators, Powell posits that his open declaration of the Freedoms ideas helped "trip up those discussions, if they ever happened."

And then when one provider did publicly try to block services -- the now-heralded case of Madison River blocking Vonage's Voice over IP -- Powell said, "we went and shot them." Even some panelists who spoke Sunday in favor of Network Neutrality agreed that there might not be a need for proactive legislation, but instead a structure for penalties if and when transgressions occur.

Powell, for one, thinks that no service provider would even try to violate one of the Freedoms, especially the blocking-of-service edict. Though much debate currently revolves around whether or not an AT&T could force a Google to pay for preferential treatment, Powell said blokcing Google or Yahoo would be suicidal for AT&T, and as such he sees the public posturing as a window on what is basically a business battle between big companies.

"I'm getting where I want to on the Net, with no problems -- and there would be problems if I couldn't get to Google," Powell said. "What's really going on here [in the public debate] is a battle between the Googles and Verizons of the world -- it's a big scrum about who should absorb the full costs [of running the network]. From the consumer side, it's going pretty well -- they are getting fairly inexpensive access to high speed broadband, and Google keeps innovating with cool stuff."

Ever the politician, Powell sees both sides of the scrum as having a bone to pick. On the provider side, he understands Verizon's frustration in spending billions to build new high-speed networks, only to see other big companies make money off the conduits. But Google, Powell said, is right not to pay any more money than it has to until it is either legally forced to, or it sees a business sense in doing so.

"I think the [service providers] are going to have to get more creative," said Powell. "They are going to have to look more to creating their own content, into doing things like selling advertisements or making deals with content creators [to share revenue]. Right now, the Googles and the Yahoos are the ones who are taking us where we are going."

(For more coverage of the Silicon Flatirons event, please see the Paul Kapustka Blog.)

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