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AT&T Concessions Provide Unlikely Boost For Net Neutrality--Maybe

AT&T made a carefully worded concession to adhere to net neutrality principles, but it's not completely clear what it all adds up to.

J. Nicholas Hoover

January 5, 2007

2 Min Read

The political football that is net neutrality appears to have gotten an unlikely kick forward from AT&T. In order to break the Federal Communications Commission's deadlock on the company's $86 billion buyout of BellSouth, which the FCC approved late last month, AT&T made a carefully worded concession to adhere to net neutrality principles. However, looks can be deceiving.

Net neutrality requires that companies not discriminate among various types of Internet traffic. Advocates of the idea applauded the concession, but the way AT&T's statement is worded creates huge loopholes. The agreement doesn't cover IP television, managed enterprise IP services like VPNs and VLANs, or even the Internet backbone--only the pipes from the consumer to the nearest point on the network where carriers exchange traffic. AT&T is free to give its own IPTV traffic preferential treatment, and it could define traffic running on its next-generation fiber-to-the-premises offering, called Uverse, as IPTV since it will be part of a bundled offering.

It's yet to be seen whether AT&T could or even would give preference to companies based on the concession. But businesses probably came out better than consumers. For example, they could receive more bandwidth for their own services during heavy traffic times. AT&T also says it will charge all companies the same for special access lines like T1s and DS3s. While that means less leverage for businesses, it also levels the playing field. However, business DSL may not be covered at all because certain language refers to "non-enterprise" broadband access.

Possibly more important than AT&T's concessions are FCC chairman Kevin Martin's comments. He downplayed the potential impact, describing the move as a "voluntary business decision" that will "in no way bind future commission action." He also said that AT&T's concessions don't mean the FCC has adopted any additional net neutrality principles.

It'll take time to see if AT&T takes advantage of the loopholes. Attempts in Congress to put Internet nondiscrimination into law last year fell short, but net neutrality advocates could garner new energy from AT&T's concessions, especially with a Congress now led by Democrats who side more with net neutrality advocates than do Republicans.

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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