'Net pioneers: Open Internet should be separate

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should allow for an open Internet separate from specialized services that may prioritize IP traffic, a group of Internet and technology pioneers recommended.

The document, filed in response to an FCC request for public comments on proposed network neutrality rules, steers clear of recommending what rules should apply to the open Internet. But the distinctions between the open Internet and specialized Internet Protocol services, if allowed, need to be "defined clearly," the group of 32 Internet experts said in comments to the FCC.

"If a service provides prioritized access to a particular application or endpoint/destination, it is not an open Internet service," the group said. "Representations as to capacity and speed for the Internet must describe only capacity and speed allocated to Internet service."

The group's paper also suggested that little network management would be needed on the open Internet, if separate specialized services exist.

Among the tech experts signing the document are Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple; Bruce Perens, founder of the open-source software movement; Clay Shirky, an author and lecturer at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program; and David Reed, a contributor to the development of TCP/IP and an adjunct professor at the MIT Media Lab. The group praised the FCC for examining the role of specialized, or managed, services in the ongoing debate over net neutrality rules.

Public comments were due Thursday in response to FCC questions on whether proposed net neutrality rules, prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing IP traffic, should apply to specialized services and to mobile carriers. Google and Verizon Communications suggested that specialized services and mobile carriers be exempted from net neutrality rules in a joint proposal released in August, and many pro-net neutrality groups criticized Google for backing the exemptions.

Some net neutrality advocates are concerned that specialized IP services will "cannibalize the capacity or the content of the Internet," said Chris Riley, policy counsel at Free Press, a digital rights group supporting stronger rules. "We're worried that this is going to become an unlimited exemption from nondiscrimination."

But Free Press agrees with the document, in that it suggests an open Internet should be free from traffic prioritization, Riley said. The paper also recognizes that specialized services shouldn't replace the open Internet, he noted.

A "truth-in-labeling" proposal from the FCC and a requirement that specialized services be significantly different from the Internet could help protect broadband customers, said David Isenberg, a telecom consultant and author of the 1997 paper, The Rise of the Stupid Network.

"If a user of a service thinks he/she is getting the open Internet, but instead is getting a managed service, that would be detrimental," said Isenberg, who signed the group's paper. "It would also be detrimental if the open Internet were throttled, slowed, or was not subject to upgrade on the same path as managed services."

MIT's Reed said he's more concerned about efforts by broadband providers to discriminate against some Web traffic than by competition from specialized services.

"Today the open Internet is allocated a fraction of the capacity delivered over broadband services over fiber and coax by the providers, yet users and services (such as TV and telephony) are migrating to the open Internet and away from those specialized services," he said by e-mail. "There's a good reason -- there are better, more innovative services on the open Internet than any one provider can build itself."

The paper also questioned the need for heavy network management when specialized IP services carry priority traffic, unless broadband providers weren't delivering on their bandwidth promises.

The FCC's proposed net neutrality rules would allow for "reasonable network management," but there's an ongoing debate over what the term means.

The open Internet would not require network management "unless the congestion was caused by less capacity being available than the provider offers to subscribers," the Internet pioneers' paper said. "It would only be made necessary by the fact that the capacity represented as available by the providers is not available in fact."

Broadband providers have suggested they need to manage networks to protect customers from so-called bandwidth hogs. Reed and Isenberg both protested the term.

"Other names for them would be power users, Internet enthusiasts, and harbingers of tomorrow's median user," Isenberg said. "They're predictable, just as bandwidth hogging events are predictable, so if an Internet access company does not provision for such events, they're offering an inferior product."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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