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Google and Verizon Push Tiered Broadband Services

Proposal excludes wireless bandwidth and calls for weak FCC regulation. Critics allege the approach would create "private fast lanes" for "big players" and a "winding dirt road" for "the little guy."

With a joint statement on U.S. broadband policy in August, Google Inc. and Verizon kicked the debate over "net neutrality" into high gear and began shaping the landscape that will determine the future costs of Internet access.

Google and Verizon described an approach that would permit differentiated services and assign a hands-off regulatory role to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The statement by the two companies was characterized by Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, as "a joint policy announcement" and not a deal between Verizon and Google, according to a press conference transcript recorded by The New York Times. A week earlier, both The Times and The Wall Street Journal carried stories suggesting that Google and Verizon planned to advocate against "net neutrality" and for tiered broadband services.

The idea behind the tiered broadband services claim was that the two companies would advocate for public access to the Internet, but the content would be available at different speeds and different subscription rates.

Google subsequently issued a denial of sorts to some news outlets, such as PCMag.com, although it now seems clear that The Times report was correct. Google and Verizon are indeed proposing tiered broadband Web access.

The Google-Verizon Plan for U.S. Broadband
The Google-Verizon statement is contained in a two-page document that the Google blog describes as a "suggested legislative framework for consideration by lawmakers." This framework contains nine points for wireline broadband (but not wireless broadband), including a proposal for "additional online services." Internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to prioritize traffic for these additional online services.

Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt characterized the statement his company made with Verizon as a "joint policy announcement" and not a deal between the two companies.

"Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization," the document states.

The document includes nuanced, and even contradictory, statements about traffic prioritization by ISPs: "Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted." In addition, ISPs are permitted to manage their networks, and that includes the ability "to prioritize general classes or types of Internet traffic, based on latency."

While this latter statement may apply to voice services, which have acute latency management issues, it could also apply to bandwidth-eating services such as BitTorrent. A federal appeals court ruling on the Comcast suppression of the BitTorrent service has put the FCC in limbo. The court ruled that the FCC didn't have oversight over an "information service" such as the Internet.

The FCC is chartered to oversee "communications services," such as the public switched telephone network. However, the Internet was reclassified by the 1996 Telecommunications Act as an information service. As such, the court ruled that it remains outside the FCC's purview.

The Comcast court ruling threatens the FCC's National Broadband Plan to ensure that all parts of the country have access to high-speed Internet service, as mandated by Congress. Google and Verizon, in their document, both affirm that they see the FCC as lacking this regulatory authority. Instead, they propose "non-governmental dispute resolution processes," created by a group of technical experts, to adjudicate any public disputes.

Google-Verizon Proposal Condemned
While the FCC has its own version of net neutrality, most of the advocacy on this issue has come from various public interest groups, such as Common Cause, Free Press and many others. Those groups have generally condemned the proposal by Google and Verizon.

The Free Press issued a public statement saying that the two companies were planning net neutrality only for that portion of the Internet where they don't plan to put their investment dollars. The policy would lead to blocking applications "just as Comcast did with BitTorrent." It would create "new private fast lanes for the big players while leaving the little guy stranded on a winding dirt road," the statement added.

"Worse, still, this pact would turn the Federal Communications Commission into a toothless watchdog, left fruitlessly chasing complaints and unable to make rules of its own," the Free Press statement added.

In a blog post announcing the policy, Google described net neutrality as a "thorny issue" and described the Verizon-Google statement as a "principled compromise."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.