Andrew Oberstar

AT&T and T-Mobile... Net Neutrality?

March 20, 2011

So the big story today is the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile. Here’s the announcement.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether it will be approved by the FCC, and what kind of concessions the FCC might make AT&T accept. For example, this GigaOm article and today’s episode of TWiT specifically talk about net neutrality concessions. While I like the idea of getting net neutrality, or anything else, out of AT&T, I really dislike that this seems to be the only way the FCC can put this in place. While I agree with the people who say they don’t want the government putting their hands on the Internet, that is their job. The FCC’s mission is basically to protect the neutrality of our communications infrastructure.

It’s a very old-world way of regulation where you put these rules into the odd deals with one or few companies or industries (case in point, the tax code). I read a great interview with clean tech investor Vinod Khosla (@vkhosla) in Scientific American (here’s a podcast). One of the points he makes is that, rather than subsidies for specific technologies or industries, a flat standard should be put in place. The specific example he talked about was carbon emissions. Giving a flat standard on the amount of emissions gives people the freedom to innovate around the solution to meeting that standard. Technologies that work better in different situations or places (e.g. sun energy in Arizona or wind in Texas) can be used. It also doesn’t put a handicap on older technologies (e.g. coal) if they can innovate to meet those standards.

To meet their network neutrality goal, the FCC can’t do this (long-term) with onesie-twosie deals with carriers. They need to do this as regulation, but not in the exception-riddled form government regulation normally comes in. A flat ruling that all Internet communication should be handled equally. This is clearly a free speech issue given that the Internet is a very significant mode of communication. Forcing you to pay for the priority of your bits, while wonderful in the narrow view of the (short-term) bottom-line conscious carriers, will only hamper the abilities of the Internet to innovate.

Essentially my point is, this deal doesn’t mean anything for net neutrality, even if concessions are forced. They need to do this across the board or sacrifice the potential of the Internet, which has been shown to be enormously important with the benefits it has provided in Mid-East revolutions and Japan and New Zealand’s natural disasters.

Final link, Al Franken talking to SXSW regarding net neutrality.