VoIP Pioneer Worried About Net Neutrality Reclassification — But Without It, Broadband Providers Could Kill VoIP Startups
from the respectfully-disagree dept
I’ve known Jeff Pulver for many, many, many years, and he is truly one of the earliest and most important pioneers in the VoIP (Voice over IP) space. He believed it was going to change the world before pretty much anyone else, and then set about helping to make that happen. The fact that so many voice communications now happen via VoIP systems are partly due to his pioneering efforts. Part of Pulver’s efforts weren’t just focused on making sure the technology kept improving and becoming more useful, or in just educating the world about VoIP (though he was instrumental in both of those spaces), but also in fighting the early regulatory fights concerning VoIP. Over a decade ago, we wrote about the efforts by some to declare VoIP a Title II regulated phone service, something that many states tried to do. Thankfully, in 2004, Pulver was able to convince the FCC to issue the so-called Pulver Order, declaring that voice services like Pulver’s Free World Dialup (FWD) were not regulated under Title II, and were information services rather than telecommunications services.
This was the right decision at the time, and remains so today. Without regulating VoIP as as telco, it allowed some really great experiments and advancements, including more “phone replacement” services, to the fact that voice features are now built into lots of products today. Given that, I can understand why Pulver has come out vocally against efforts to reclassify broadband infrastructure players under Title II. As we’ve discussed, while we’re wary of increasing regulations, in this case, we actually feel that Title II reclassification, with forbearance, is the proper result for the big broadband players.
Where I think the disconnect comes from is in the difference between the infrastructure providers — building the core underlying pipes that make the internet work, almost always doing so with direct assistance from the government (rights of way, franchises, subsidies, tax rebates, pole rights, spectrum, etc.) — and the services that are built on top of it. For example, without being able to stop broadband players from discrimination, those broadband players could, in fact, decide they want to block out VoIP players for taking away business from their own phone service. That’s not a hypothetical. It’s happened.
So I agree with Pulver that we don’t want burdensome regulations on the services that exist on the internet. And I’ll stand right beside him in arguments to extend any such regulations to those services. But, at this stage of the game, the big broadband players have become so powerful, and so anti-competitive with their terminating monopoly, that they have the ability to kill off all the kinds of cool and unique services that Puliver lauds in his article.
For anyone born after 1985, the idea of connecting with a relative on FaceTime, Skyping a friend traveling abroad or discussing a Halo mission with friends over a headset in real time is second nature.
But it’s equally true that these services might never have come to pass without significant efforts over a decade ago by many in the Internet community to keep government regulators at bay as they actively considered how to regulate one of the forerunners of these technologies — a novel Internet-based communications service called Free World Dial-up (FWD).
He’s right about that, but he’s underestimating the flip side problem: if the Comcasts, Verizons and AT&T’s of the world are too powerful, we wouldn’t have that either, because they’d make sure to degrade or block such services, driving users to their own services, or requiring innovative services like Pulver’s to pay a toll just to reach their subscribers.
We should certainly be careful about excessive government regulation, but just as equally we should be wary of monopolists with the power to block out innovation. Just because Title II is the wrong solution for most internet services, it does not automatically mean it’s wrong for the underlying infrastructure.