Possible pact between Google, Verizon would create Internet class system
By SCOTT CANON
The Kansas City Star
Google reportedly is on the brink of an alliance with Verizon that would give priority to a particular class of Internet traffic Communications. It would pose a significant challenge to the current egalitarian flow of bits, bytes and terabytes over broadband connections.
Analysts, telecommunications firms and consumer groups say the pact, the first between a content provider, Google, and a broadband carrier, Verizon, would be a turning point in the debate over so-called net neutrality.
Those who’ve been briefed on the Google-Verizon negotiations say the deal would establish a model for cable and phone companies that paves an Internet express lane. That digital road would be reserved for Internet traffic created by businesses that pay an extra toll so their content would move faster. Various news agencies reported that a finished deal is just days away.
Now, the sometimes gridlocked lanes of data uploading and downloading across the Internet all move with the same right of way — a report from Library of Congress holding no preference over posts from any random blogger.
“The question is: ‘Do we want everybody to have equal access to the Internet?’ That’s pretty much what we have right now,” said Sandy Davidson, who teaches communications law at the University of Missouri. “I don’t think we want people who have bigger checkbooks (to) determine what goes to the head of the line on the Internet.”
Publicly, Google denied any such deal is imminent. A spokesman for the Internet search leader referred to a Twitter post from Google’s public policy team Thursday saying “we’ve not had any (talks) with (Verizon) about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open Internet.”
The spokesman also cited a June 16 company blog post spelling out Google’s view on net neutrality — where the firm said it opposed “building a new ‘fast lane’ online that consigns (some) Internet content and applications to a relatively slow, bandwidth-starved portion of the broadband connection.”
Verizon also denied a deal is in the works. “Our goal is an Internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation,” a Verizon statement said. “To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect.”
Yet one person who was briefed on talks between Verizon and Google, Art Brodsky of the consumer group Public Knowledge, said that while any deal remains fuzzy, it would involve Internet priority for a price.
He sees it as a sharp turnaround for Google.
“On a practical level, you’ve got the biggest Internet company and biggest phone company skipping up to Congress and saying, ‘See, we’ve reached a deal,’ ” Brodsky said.
He was briefed on the matter because Public Knowledge was part of ongoing talks orchestrated by the Federal Communications Commission between large phone, cable and Internet companies and consumer groups. They have been searching for a compromise on how to regulate Internet traffic.
On Thursday, in the wake of the reported Google-Verizon deal, the FCC abandoned efforts to broker a compromise. That left a hazy view of how the Obama administration might move on the issue.
“We have called off this round of stakeholder discussions,” FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus said in a statement. “It has been productive on several fronts, but has not generated a robust framework to preserve the openness and freedom of the Internet. … All options remain on the table.”
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said he wants rules that would require phone and cable companies to treat all broadband traffic the same.
A coalition of consumer groups and the online phone service Skype contends that net neutrality would keep Internet service providers from acting as judges over what data and applications deserve the fastest delivery.
They worry that cable or phone companies might put one type of Web transaction — say Hulu or YouTube video — on a faster route at the expense of others. That could slow or even block services like online phone calls or video offered by less well-heeled companies.
In contrast, phone and cable firms note they’ve been investing billions in their networks to make broadband more available and reliable. Regulations from the federal government over how they use those networks, they say, could stifle innovation by denying a possible stream of revenue.
The telecommunications industry was largely mum about news of a possible Google-Verizon pact. The two have found great success together with the unleashing last fall of Google’s Android operating system for the smartest web-surfing phones. Besides giving a challenge to Apple’s iPhone exclusive to AT&T’s wireless network, the Android is seen as a way to radically expand uses of the Internet on wireless devices.
Overland Park-based Sprint Nextel Corp. has filed comments with the FCC saying “marketplace forces are the best tool … to promote innovation and investment in broadband and to ensure an open, consumer friendly Internet.”
A Washington-based spokesman for Sprint said the company has not taken a specific position on whether the FCC should regulate the sale of priority lanes on the Internet.
AT&T released a statement saying it was “disappointed that the net neutrality talks convened by the FCC have broken down. … We put a number of significant concessions on the table and, despite today’s setback, remain convinced that a consensus solution can be achieved.”
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