Courts and regulators, meanwhile, are taking a powder. The Supreme Court last year cleared the way for liberalized regulation of cable Internet service, and the FCC responded by taking the same position on DSL. Consequently, the battle has shifted to Congress, where critics of the phone and cable companies are trying to prevent a provision protecting network neutrality from being deleted from a revision of telecommunication law currently under consideration.
[…] Neutrality supporters were also unnerved when SBC Chairman Edward Whitacre complained that popular Web services were essentially freeloading on his network. “For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” he groused to BusinessWeek in November. Whitacre, who is chairman of AT&T, evidently overlooked the charges paid by Web services for the bandwidth they consume, as well as connection fees paid by consumers.
An AT&T spokesman says Whitacre was simply arguing that AT&T is spending so heavily to build a high-capacity network that it needs new sources of revenue to help cover the cost. “AT&T is not going to block access to any service or degrade customer service in any way, shape, or form,” James Cicconi, the company’s executive vice president for external affairs, told me. But he says AT&T shouldn’t be barred from selling premium treatment to any service wishing to get digital bits to customers faster than its rivals.
Critics of this viewpoint say that allowing network providers to offer such preferential treatment leaves the system open to abuse: What would stop AT&T, which owns the broadband phone service CallVantage, from degrading Vonage’s service to make its own seem better? Vonage customers whose calls suddenly sounded lousy would be inclined to blame Vonage and move their business to AT&T instead. (To be sure, AT&T hasn’t been accused of such activity.)
It’s by no means clear that the phone and cable companies will win the coming battle on Capitol Hill, as well-equipped with lobbyists and war chests as they are. Vonage, EBay, Google, Amazon.com and other online companies have launched their own joint lobbying effort to oppose them. The Internet’s very future may hang in the balance.