AT&T’s Take on Net Neutrality

Net NeutralityThe discussion about net neutrality and paid peering tends to be about who shoulders the financial burden for increased broadband use — the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who need to invest in hardware and manpower to meet demand, or the companies like Netflix, Google, and Amazon whose content is in-demand and requires extra support from the ISPs? In the end, it doesn’t really matter since it’s the consumer who ultimately foots the bill, but AT&T is making its argument for weak net neutrality by saying it will lead to lower rates for subscribers.

In a recent filing with the FCC, AT&T makes the case that not only should net neutrality continue to be off the table, but that it and other ISPs should be able to charge content companies a premium for preferred access to the end-user. That is one of the practices specifically called out as a no-no in the neutrality rules gutted by a federal court earlier this year.

In fact, AT&T wants to create a “safe harbor” to protect deals between the and ISPs and the Netflixes of the Internet that provide the content companies with priority access.

While this seems to fly in the face of the conventional understanding of net neutrality, the filing contends that it’s actually in the spirit of the Open Internet rules. The company explains that if “an ISP is neither favoring its own content, applications, or services nor providing a service on an exclusive basis, there is no risk of commercially unreasonable discrimination that would constitute a threat to Internet openness.”

Many consumer advocates have argued that allowing ISPs to charge a premium for providing quality delivery of content puts too high a price on entry into the marketplace for a startup competitor. The idea is that larger, deep-pocketed companies will not feel the sting of the additional cost as much as a newer business trying to carve out a customer base. This leads to lack of competition, which can result in higher prices and crippled innovation.

But AT&T has given some thought to this and claims that allowing ISPs to place tolls on “edge providers” — sites and services that deliver bandwidth-heavy content like video — is good for competition and for consumers!

[Reminder, this is the same company that claims forced arbitration is in consumers’ best interest (it’s not) [PDF], and which failed to convince regulators that a merger with T-Mobile would have been good for consumers (it wouldn’t have been), so take the following quote from the FCC filing with a sizable grain of salt.]

Allowing individualized dealings between ISPs and edge providers is sound policy for a number of reasons. By enabling smaller edge providers to negotiate special arrangements for the handling of their traffic, flexible net neutrality rules will empower start-ups to compete more effectively against more entrenched and well-heeled rivals. And by enabling ISPs to recover the costs of network upgrades not just from consumers but also from the edge providers whose applications benefit from such upgrades, flexible rules also will promote deployment of additional broadband infrastructure and improved features. They also will reduce the cost of broadband service for consumers, facilitating greater adoption.

Before we get to the whole “reduce the costs for consumers” thing, can we all have a good chuckle at the phrase “flexible net neutrality”? AT&T isn’t asking for flexibility, it’s suggesting that the FCC scuttle the entire notion of net neutrality.

But it’s all for the best, right? We’ll be paying less for broadband, yes? AT&T says so right there in the FCC filing that it’s assuming most people will never care to look at.