Berners-Lee backpedals on net neutrality

We’ve previously observed that Sir Timmy has taken a very nuanced approach to net neutrality by endorsing the concept but defining it in a way that differs radically from the actual legislation. He continued that approach in a Congressional hearing today, speaking platitudes about a content-neutral Web but refusing to endorse any bill:

Although he has previously voiced support for Net neutrality, Berners-Lee on Thursday stopped short of taking a position on the various bills on that topic proposed in Congress in the past year.

“I can say I feel that a nondiscriminatory Internet is very important for a society based on the World Wide Web,” he said. “I think that the communications medium is so important to society that we have to give it a special treatment.”

Proponents of Net neutrality define the concept as prohibiting network operators, such as Verizon and Comcast, from being allowed to charge content companies like Google and extra fees for prioritization. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who arranged the hearing, was among the chief sponsors of a legislative proposal last year that would put that mandate into law.

Perhaps in a nod to the issue’s divisiveness, with Republicans tending to reject the idea of new laws, Markey on Thursday issued a disclaimer to his colleagues. “Before end of year, we’re going to hear from all sides on that issue so that everyone’s perspective is heard,” he said.

What we have here is a man who stumbled into a fight and now wants to get out of the middle of it without offending anyone. He knows that the content of the Markey bill is ridiculous, (and I know that he knows this because I brought it to his attention personally.) But to support peace and freedom is to support net neutrality, so he can’t say that he’s against it.

It’s my personal opinion that Lee took a position without fully understanding it. That probably sounds weird to anybody who doesn’t live packets and breath routes, but the fact is that Sir Tim’s expertise is in a wholly different part of the Internet than the part that’s affected by forwarding priorities, peering arrangements, and packet queues.

He’s an application guy, and his deal is images, fonts, links, document styles, and data types. In fact, the design of his invention, HTTP 1.0, was naive about Internet traffic. It insisted on chunking information up into tiny pieces roughly one third the optimum size for Internet traffic management, and by slowing them down immensely by not using TCP sockets correctly (every object had its own socket, and hence suffered from Slow Start.) No traffic guy would make such a mistake, and the folks who came behind cleaned up the mess. So here’s a guy trying to do the right thing and largely failing because he moved too soon and can’t admit he made a mistake.

Bob Kahn did it the right way: he sat back and listened until he understood what the debate was about, and then came down on the right side of the question, against the new regulations. That’s the kind of guy who invents an Internet.

Many of the Internet’s great heroes have turned out to be one-trick ponies. There are some guys, like Kahn, David Clark, Van Jacobsen, and Jon Postel, who managed to make important contributions year after year. Clark was the main author of the “End to End Arguments in System Design” paper, but he was also one of the main men behind DiffServ, twenty years later. And then you have guys who pop up once with a good idea but never have another one, and that makes me wonder if the idea was really original.

I think the serial innovators are the ones to heed.

Lightspeed ahead

Now TV viewers have a choice of cable providers in a few markets, thanks to the roll-out of the AT&T Lightspeed project, sold as “U-verse:

AT&T’s advanced broadband services – voice, high-speed data and video – are sold under the “U-verse” brand name. The service is currently available in 13 markets in five states. Lightspeed was announced at a splashy press conference in late 2004. At the time, AT&T said it expected to spend $4 billion to $6 billion to make a menu of broadband services available to 18 million homes by the end of 2007.

AT&T started making some revisions to its targets in 2005. One called for Lightspeed to reach 18 million homes by 2008, giving itself a one-year extension on that total. In a recent 10-K filing, AT&T again revised its plan, raising the 2008 goal to 19 million households. In that filing, AT&T says nothing about the original 2007 targets.

The San Antonio-based communications giant has also updated its cost estimate. AT&T now says its spending on Lightspeed from 2006 through 2008 will add up to $4.6 billion. The total expenditure from 2004 through 2008: $5.1 billion.

This offering is the reason AT&T sought nationwide video franchising from Congress last year, only to lose after net neutrality activists twisted the product into a bizarre caricature. But that didn’t slow the phone company down, as states have proved willing to enact statewide video franchising measures that allow deployment as fast as AT&T can deliver it anyway.

So what is it about a second supplier of Triple-Play that’s so threatening to populist Democrats and consumer rights lobbyists? Nothing really, but they’ve been tripped-up by their own rhetoric. This service uses IPTV to deliver TV programming, and the consumer people have made the unfortunate mistake of believing that all network traffic framed in IP is “the Internet”. IPTV is a service that’s confined to a private network, and it never touches the public Internet. That’s annoying to Internet-based companies like Google and Netflix who want to compete with cable TV through these private networks as well, but not so understandable that the U-verse network should be opened up to them for free.

And that was the point that AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre was making when he said Google wouldn’t be using his pipes for free: Internet service, fine; IPTV service, not so fine.

Is that so hard to understand?