No One Neutral About Net Free-for-All

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There was an accusation of a network operator blocking a rival phone service, deals that could put some preferred email on a fast lane on the Internet and, along the way, U.S. Senate hearings examining just who should control what consumers access on the Web. Those blows last week only added to the growing fight between companies who have communications networks and those who don’t, as to how 'neutral’ those nets should be, in what they carry.

Neutrality boils down — at present — to three flash-point issues involving network operators such as cable companies: whether they should be allowed to block certain rival services, such as Internet voice calls, from traveling over their networks; whether they will cut off their subscribers’ access to content that in some way competes with their own in-house programs; and whether they will cut deals to give some content and services priority delivery ahead of other offerings.

At the center of the battle: costs. At the BusinessWeek Media Summit in New York last week, Verizon Communications Inc. chairman Ivan Seidenberg said the net-neutrality debate is really about who pays for the backbone necessary to carry surging amounts of data and video traffic on the Internet.

“I think where we are now is one big ruse to shifting costs and hiding behind the notion that a company like Verizon will block traffic, so therefore you better make sure that these guys can’t block traffic and give everybody in the world free access to broadband services,” Seidenberg said. “I think we have to be real careful. We won’t be quiet on this point.”

OUT OF SERVICE

Cable-system and telephone-network operators, including Verizon, insist that they don’t intend to block other providers from sending content and services to consumers over their broadband pipes.

But at least one cable operator is blocking Vonage Holdings Corp.’s service from its subscribers, chairman Jeffrey Citron told Multichannel News Tuesday, after he appeared at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on neutrality issues.

Citron would not name the cable company, but he said it was a small system operator. Vonage, a Holmdel, N.J.-based pioneer of voice communications over the Internet, provides phone service to 1.4 million subscribers, who purchase their access to the Internet from a third party, usually a cable or phone company.

Asked why he hadn’t filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, Citron insisted that was useless, because the agency forfeited its right to intervene when it classified cable-modem service as an unregulated information service in March 2002.

When he raised the subject of cable blocking at the FCC, agency officials told Vonage “to try to work it out in the marketplace,” Citron claimed.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin said Wednesday he was reluctant to discuss a blocking allegation until there was a formal complaint. Citron “would have to bring something to our attention before I’d really comment on it further,” Martin told reporters.

Last March, the FCC ordered Madison River Communications LLC, a small North Carolina phone company , to pay a $15,000 fine for blocking Vonage. But the agency never said it received a complaint from Vonage and never acknowledged that Vonage’s traffic had been disabled.

In the wake of the Madison River case and the adoption of network-neutrality guidelines, Martin indicated, the FCC was prepared to step in to prevent blocking of voice-over-Internet Protocol services.

“The commission has acted in the past when people were blocking Internet access over broadband pipes,” Martin said. “The commission has said the carrier can’t, for example, block consumers’ access.”

THE SCIENCE OF BLOCKING

Network operators do have the tools to block content and services.

The easiest way to block applications such as voice-over-IP service is by turning off certain Internet Protocol ports on network servers and routers that feed consumers’ computers.

For example, cable operators using Motorola Inc.’s Broadband Service Router cable-modem termination system units can program them to accept or drop traffic coming from a specific source and aiming for specific IP ports — such as Port 80, which is often a target for hackers to deliver viruses, said Mike Cookish, director of product management for Motorola’s Connected Home Solutions unit.

Content from specific providers or Web sites also can be blocked through a device that can inspect the contents of packets of information being shipped through a network.

Called a deep-packet inspection device, it can block traffic headed to any IP port on a network server, or it can block requests for Web site access based on a list of Web addresses the network operator supplies.

Cox Communications Inc. has actually used a blocking strategy to protect its customers from e-mail phishing schemes that pretend to be official Cox service announcements. In a typical phishing attempt, bogus e-mail messages direct unsuspecting users to a phony Web site, where they are instructed to enter their credit-card numbers or other sensitive information, which hackers then steal.

When Cox technicians learn about bogus Cox e-mails from customer tips, they can trace the messages to the phony Web site and then block customers’ access to it, said Cox director of media relations David Grabert. Not only that, but any Cox customer trying to access that site is redirected to a Cox Web site with information about how to avoid phishing attacks.

Comcast Corp., meanwhile, selectively blocks IP Port 25, which is a common target for Trojan Horse viruses that can turn home computers into spam e-mail machines, according to spokeswoman Jeanne Russo. But it does not block other ports, nor does it block any applications flowing over its network from third parties, including Vonage.

And while Cablevision Systems Corp. does not release information on which IP ports it blocks, it also does not block ports used by Internet telephony providers, according to spokesman Jim Maiella.

Indeed, cable operators say they are not willing to use these tools to block content or services from legal sources such as Vonage and Yahoo Inc.

“So, let me be clear: NCTA’s members have not, and will not, block the ability of their high-speed Internet service customers to access any lawful content, application or services available over the public Internet,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow said at the commerce committee hearing.

QUALITY OF SERVICE

That said, some network operators do want content companies to shoulder some of the cost of building and maintaining networks that move content to their customers.

“I don’t think anybody wants us to put all of the cost of the backbone network from New York to San Francisco in the DSL rates,” Seidenberg said. “I think that everybody that participates in the broadband world needs to participate.”

The first instance of charging for applications may come from Internet portals Yahoo Inc. and America Online Inc. Both companies disclosed plans last week to charge senders a fee for e-mail that would go directly to a user’s mailbox, without passing through junk mail filters.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said the American Red Cross and The New York Times plan to use the new e-mail system, which is a software product from Goodmail Systems Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., company founded by former Excite@Home Inc. executive Richard Gingras.

Goodmail sets the rates, which would range from one-quarter cent to one cent per e-mail. Under its system, a company would pay those extra fees and receive “accreditation” for e-mails they send.

Those e-mails, Graham said, would carry a blue icon to let AOL users know they are legitimate, and would flow past spam filters into a consumer’s AOL mailbox, with images and links activated.

Meanwhile, BellSouth Corp. executives have approached some Internet companies, including Movielink, about speeding the delivery of their movie downloads for an extra fee, ranging from one to five cents.

“As the Internet becomes more crowded, it might be reasonable to assume someone would pay so that certain content arrives more quickly,” said Bill McCloskey, BellSouth’s director of legislative and regulatory affairs. He emphasized BellSouth has not talked about blocking any Web sites.

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