Public interest groups including Free
Press and Public Knowledge have called on AT&T to retract a letter to the
FCC that said the Internet standards-setting body IETF (Internet Engineering
Task Force) had "fully contemplated" paid prioritization, with the
groups saying IETF disputed that assertion. But Russ Housely, chairman of the
IETF, says that is not the case, though he said he personally thinks AT&T
has "jumbled some things together."
Paid prioritization is one of two key
issues on which the FCC is seeking more comment before it proceeds with its
effort to expand and codify network openness principles.
In AT&T's letter
it said Free Press was confused about paid prioritization in its own letter.
AT&T has said that paid prioritization was contemplated by IETF, is already
widely available from multiple providers, and is used by small businesses as
well as the handful of giants Free Press says benefit from it. In a blog
posting Thursday, AT&T SVP Bob Quinn, who signed the FCC letter, defined
that prioritization as "providing customers the option of purchasing a
higher quality of service."
Public Knowledge, Free Press and others
issued a release this week headlined "Internet Engineering Task Force Says
‘AT&T Is Misleading' on Net Neutrality." They argue AT&T is
blurring the line between paid prioritization, which Free Press defined as
"speeding up and slowing down" Internet traffic according to who pays
more, and "accepted business-class network management practices."
The call for a retraction came after
Housely told the National Journal that the AT&T letter was misleading.
"IETF prioritization technology is
geared toward letting network users indicate how they want network providers to
handle their traffic, and there is no implication in the IETF about payment
based on any prioritization," he said.
But Housely says he was speaking for
himself, not IETF. "I want to be clear that I was speaking as an
individual when I spoke to reporters last Friday," he told the magazine in
an e-mail. "The [public interest group] press release says: 'The IETF,
however, disputes AT&T's claims.' The IETF has not taken any consensus
position on this matter," he said, adding in a follow-up e-mail:
"[T]he IETF produces technical specification for the Internet. The IETF
does not make statements about prices for network services."
Compromise language being hammered out
by industry representatives, including AT&T and the National Cable &
Telecommunications Association, on a legislative path to clarifying the FCC's
Internet access oversight authority is likely to include an agreement that paid
prioritization of service should be allowed, but with assurances that such
prioritization does not come at the cost of the robustness of the "public
Housely says the "jumble"
comes from the meaning of "paid prioritization. "[I]t is clear to me
that the term "paid prioritization" does not have the same
meaning to all readers," he told B&C.
"If you read the AT&T letter with one definition in your head, then
you get one overall message, and if you read the letter with the other in your
head, then you get a different overall message. I tried to make this
Housely told B&C that AT&T in
its letter makes "many correct points"--he did not specify which they
were--but that it also "jumbles some things together." "[I]n my opinion, a
reader will get a distorted impression from the parts of the letter where
things get jumbled," he said.
The problem, Housely says, is that the
IETF specification at issue is not about "prioritization," but about
quality of service. "Different applications need different things from the
network to deliver a quality experience," he said. He used as an example
of giving preference to "traffic associated with applications that require
timely delivery, like voice and video, over traffic associated with
applications without those demands, like email."
Housely says the debate is not about
that, but about what happens if, say, two video sites both mark their packets
of info for timely delivery. "If two sources of video are marking their
stuff the same, then that's where the ugliness of this debate begins,"
Housley told the Journal. "The RFC doesn't talk about that...If they
put the same tags, they'd expect the same service from the same provider."
That would be the difference between a
tier of service where everyone was treated equally in that tier, and one in
which one company could pay to have its service get priority over another similarly
situated company expecting equal treatment.
"Clearly, if the two video sources
have purchased different amounts of bandwidth, then the example breaks
down," Housely told this magazine, again, speaking for himself.
"However, that is not the point in this debate."
Asked to respond to Housely's
clarification that his criticisms of AT&T were his opinion, not IETF's,
Free Press's Derek Turner, was undeterred: "Nothing changes the fact AT&T
was caught red-handed misleading the Commission by conflating the harmful
practice it agreed not to use as a condition of its merger with Bell South,
with widely recognized legitimate network management practices. "Housley
is an independent expert in his own right and his opinion is backed up by
several independent sources and engineers."
Asked about Housely's
"jumbled" reference, AT&T referred the magazine to its original
letter to the FCC in which it outlines the IETF RFC (request for comment)
language on which it bases its conclusion that the IETF had meant to
"facilitate paid prioritization as a means for encouraging the further
growth and development of the Internet."
Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
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