Why net-neutrality rules should be applied equally

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Have Google and Verizon got a deal for you!

The nation's leading Web firm and one of its biggest telecom firms teamed up two weeks ago to offer a joint proposal to end a prolonged debate over "network neutrality."

In that document, the firms suggested that the government impose net-neutrality regulations on wired Internet connections but exempt separate, add-on services from those rules. The rules would also be waived for wireless services, although carriers would have to disclose what sites or services they hinder or prioritize.

Many Web sites and telecom firms would probably support the policies, but it's odd that they are coming from these two in particular.

Google has a long history of pushing for net-neutrality rules -- the company and others persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to attach openness obligations to wireless spectrum freed up by the digital-television transition.

Verizon, in turn, didn't have a problem buying up new spectrum under those obligations.

As a result, politicians, techies and other observers have reacted with a mix of confusion and anger.

Not all the anger is justified. Google and Verizon's proposal features some reasonable ideas. Chief among them is requiring transparency about network-management practices. The insistence of telecom firms that they don't -- or no longer -- discriminate against legitimate sites and services suggests that publicity alone might deter some abuses.

On wired services, Google and Verizon would prohibit charging any one site or service for faster access -- favorable treatment allowed in some definitions of network neutrality.

The Google-Verizon proposal's allowance for "additional online services" exempt from neutrality rules deserves a look, too, though it would help if the companies better explained what they have in mind. Some examples Verizon has thrown out, such as "smart grid" monitoring of electrical use, involve minimal amounts of data that shouldn't need prioritized service, while vague references to "entertainment and gaming options" require more details.

Does Verizon want to sell a separate, super-responsive connection for online gamers (most users don't obsess over "ping times" the way they do), or would it charge extra for a guarantee of uninterrupted high-definition video streaming (when those video sites might compete with its Fios TV service)?

In one way, the joint proposal earns its skeptical reception. Google and Verizon make a fundamental mistake in not treating wired and wireless connections alike.

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