Public-interest groups, including Free Press and Public Knowledge, have called on AT&T to retract a letter to the Federal Communications Commission indicating the Internet standards-setting body IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) had "fully contemplated" paid prioritization. Meanwhile, the groups maintain the association disputed that assertion.
But Russ Housely, chairman of the ITEF, says that is not the case, stating 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 senior vice president 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 claims 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 [Sept. 3]," 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 Internet."
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 Multichannel News. "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 point."
Housely told MultiChannel News 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, according to Housely, 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 avers 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 National 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 simarly situated company expected equal treatment.
"Clearly, if the two video sources have purchased different amounts of bandwidth, then the example breaks down," Housely told MCN, again, speaking for himself. "However, that is not the point in this debate."
Asked to respond to Housely's clarification that it was 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 ITEF RFC (request for comment) language on which it basis its conclusion that the ITEF 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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