Principles for a Successful IP Transition: Openness

Principles for a Successful IP Transition: Openness
Consumers must retain their rights to utilize any legal applications, content, devices, and services of their choosing on the broadband networks they use.

In December 2013, the Benton Foundation published The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities, written by Ted Gotsch. In that report, we identified 10 interrelated principles to help policymakers guide the transition from traditional telephone service to emerging broadband networks. In this article, we look at the fourth principle: Openness. If our broadband networks are going to replace our analog voice networks, then they must be able to support robust voice and video competition -- even if those services compete directly with services offered by the incumbent broadband network provider.

The story behind open telephone networks goes back more than 45 years, to a Texan named Thomas Carter who invented a device that extended the reach of a telephone into the oil fields so supervisors could stay in touch. Since the Federal Communications Commission’s 1968 ruling in the case known as Carterphone, consumers have been allowed to connect any legal device to the network and new technologies have flourished. Such a policy is just as essential in the age of Internet Protocol (IP) as well.

Some stakeholders, however, are concerned about the future of voice and video competition with incumbents when these companies own and control both the networks and the services that run over them. They suggest the policy could be in jeopardy as a shrinking number of telecommunications providers exert their control over a significant portion of the network.

In 2012, the Department of Justice apparently opened an antitrust investigation into whether cable companies are acting improperly to quash nascent competition from online video. The query included issues such as setting data caps, limits to the amount of data a subscriber can download each month. Internet video providers like Netflix have expressed concern that the limits are aimed at stopping consumers from dropping cable television and switching to online video providers. They also worry that cable companies will give priority to their own online video offerings to stop subscribers from leaving their networks.

The cable companies have shown little inclination to get out of the business of packaging television channels to become mere conduits for other companies' data. Some major entertainment companies also have an interest in preserving the current model of television viewing because they want cable companies to take bundles of their channels, rather than just cherry-picking the most popular ones. Another issue that investigators have asked about is whether cable companies are acting anti-competitively by making viewers have a cable subscription before being able to access certain online programming.

Rules could be put in place that benefit carriers but hurt consumers, especially when it comes to choice and cost. This is a special concern of advocates who represent vulnerable populations, some of whom are banding together.

“We are going to demand an open Internet, whether it is wired or wireless,” said amalia deloney of the Center for Media Justice. “We are not going to stand for a second-class Internet for people of color.”

Others agree, saying there is a need to ensure that disadvantaged communities don’t get left behind due to corporate consolidation. They also said it is essential that the same policies exist for both wireline and wireless networks going forward.

In 2013, AT&T’s decision to block Apple’s video-calling program on its cellular network for certain customers raised the ire of consumers and public interest groups. After AT&T offered its rationale on its decision to limit video over FaceTime to customers who have signed up for its Mobile Shared Data plan, Stacey Higginbotham offered two explanations. AT&T wanted to: 1) push more consumers over to its Mobile Shared Data plan; and 2) establish a precedent that would put AT&T’s Wi-Fi network on the same legal footing as its cellular one, especially when it comes to network neutrality. Success in the first effort would help AT&T in the near term as it would drive people off their grandfathered unlimited plans and tiered plans, while success in the second would give AT&T more wiggle room as it fights the FCC and consumer advocates over network neutrality.

“If openness applies to one technology, it should apply to all technologies,” said Cheryl Leanza of the United Church of Christ. She noted FCC rules currently don’t offer as much protection to wireless consumers as they do for wireline users. She is concerned that could disproportionately affect minorities, who rely on mobile devices for their Internet use more than whites. If IP wireless networks are going to be a replacement for fixed PSTN services, then we need to ensure that they have the same protections as wired IP networks in terms of openness.

Edyael Casaperalta of the Center for Rural Strategies agreed that wireless network requirements will have to be beefed up, especially if more homes and businesses in remote areas become dependent on wireless for their Internet needs. “You don’t want to have a limit on where you can go because providers want to limit it,” she said. Casaperalta said networks have to have strong requirements regarding openness.

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