Google, Verizon and the Value of Tiered Service

Let me say up front that I’m a Massachusetts democrat, so I’m all for government intervention where it makes sense. But let’s face it, the government isn’t always the best at making things happen, and this is especially true when it comes to technology. Watching our elected officials try to wrap their heads around the technology of well drilling during the New Orleans oil spill hearings was painful, and when you get to the complexities of net neutrality it’s unsurprising there is so much gridlock.

Which is why it looks as if we’re seeing the beginning of network infrastructure companies and service providers working together independent of government negotiations to form mutually beneficial alliances. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The U.S. is way behind many other developed countries when it comes to our network infrastructure (though we’re a big country so this should be taken with a grain of salt). And we develop many of the most bandwidth intensive technologies, so managing the data that flows across our increasingly overtaxed networks is a critical issue for network operators, service providers and consumers. While there is certainly a place for the government at the table, it needs to be focused on this latter are of protecting consumers first and foremost.

Google and Verizon have been remarkably tight lipped about their closed-door discussions (other than saying that the story which generated most of the attention in the New York Times “is mistaken“) so we don’t know exactly what Google and Verizon are working on, whether there is actually a deal, or what that deal would be for, but it seems likely they are figuring out an effective framework for managing their traffic over terrestrial and wireless networks.

The ability to manage traffic on privately owned networks runs counter to net neutrality but it’s a critical issue underlined by Time Warner and Comcast moves to tiered service and AT&T’s repeated wireless network failures thanks to their deal with Apple for the iPhone. One could reasonably argue that it is in the best interest of all parties, especially consumers that this type of discussion take place between Google which controls two of the top 3 websites in the world and a growing 13% share of the U.S. smartphone market (versus Apple at 24.4%, RIM at 41.2% and Microsoft at 13.2%) and Verizon with the largest wireless network in the U.S. to ensure that they are able to continue providing unfettered access to the information they provide on all platforms. It is in Google’s best interest to ensure that Verizon wireless and Android OS users do not run into the same frustrations of customers using AT&T Wireless.

There is value to Net Neutrality as a principle; the internet as an unbiased free-flowing medium is important to innovation, and the FCC has a role in ensuring that private companies are not be allowed collude to exploit their networks for anti-competitive gain, but as we become increasingly dependent on the internet there is a far greater risk in failing to put measures in place which can ensure that we can always provide the uptime that is required for depended on online services and this means tiered levels of service.

UPDATE: About half an hour after this was posted Google and Verizon announced their “Joint policy proposal for an open internet.” In a Google Public Policy blog post the companies lay out their proposal for the future of U.S. network legislation and state that they have been guided by two goals:

1. Users should choose what content, applications, or devices they use, since openness has been central to the explosive innovation that has made the Internet a transformative medium.

2. America must continue to encourage both investment and innovation to support the underlying broadband infrastructure; it is imperative for our global competitiveness.

The blog post post sticks to standard net neutrality buzz words stressing the importance of openness, and the value of ISPs maintaining transparency and not engaging in anti-competitive practices but skims over two of the more important aspects of the actual legislative framework proposal, network management and wireless broadband.

Network Management, long a sticking point for Net Neutrality purists is sure to raise some eyebrows:

Network Management: Broadband Internet access service providers are permitted to engage in  reasonable network management. Reasonable network management includes any technically sound practice: to reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network; to ensure network security or integrity; to address traffic that is unwanted by or harmful to users, the provider’s network, or the Internet; to ensure service quality to a subscriber; to provide services or capabilities consistent with a consumer’s choices; that is consistent with the technical requirements, standards, or best practices adopted by an independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiative or standard-setting organization; to prioritize general classes or types of Internet traffic, based on latency; or otherwise to manage the daily operation of its network.

While not specifically calling it tiered services, the second to last sentence, “to prioritize general classes or types of Internet traffic” makes it pretty clear that they see this as a sensible option.

The other area of interest is the disregard for any solid principle guidelines for wireless networks:

Wireless Broadband: Because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of  wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time. The U.S. Government Accountability Office would report to Congress annually on the continued development and robustness of wireless broadband Internet access services.

Wireless broadband may be one where the government needs to intervene and provide further guidelines. The intentional vagueness of this section leaves open the possibility of anti-competitive deals which would hurt American consumers.