Back in 2005, former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre (now the head of GM) boldly proclaimed that Google was getting a "free ride" on his company's "pipes," and that they should be charged an additional toll (you know, just because). As we've discussed several times now, Whitacre's argument made absolutely no sense, given that Google not only pays plenty for bandwidth (as do AT&T's customers), but the company owns billions in international and oceanic fiber runs, data centers and network infrastructure. Despite making no sense, this idea that Google was some kind of free ride parasite quickly became the cornerstone of the telco argument against network neutrality. In response,Techdirt has suggested that telco spokespeople should pay for Google's bandwidth bill for a month if it's so low -- with no takers.
Of course, lost under the circus of the network neutrality debate was Whitacre's real goal: to get content providers to subsidize AT&T's network upgrades, something many myopic investors don't want to pay for. Whitacre was also afraid; he understood Google poses an evolutionary threat, the likes of which traditional phone companies like AT&T had never seen before. Incumbent phone companies had grown comfortable sucking down regulatory favors, subsidies and tax cuts while operating in non-competitive markets. Suddenly, increasingly-ubiquitous broadband allowed companies like Google to enter "their" telecom space, gobbling up ad dollars and offering disruptive products like Google Voice -- which threaten sacred cash cows like SMS and voice minutes.
Instead of competing with Google by out-innovating them, Whitacre's first reaction was to impose an anti-competitive toll system like some kind of bridge troll -- which should tell you plenty about pampered phone company thinking. Whitacre's fuzzy logic was given a new coat of paint in pseudo-scientific studies paid for by phone carriers, and has since floated overseas. In the UK, incumbent phone companies have taken a page from Whitacre, insisting that the BBC should pay them extra money -- just because people were using the BBC iPlayer. Now Google's non-existent free ride has popped up in Europe this week, with Telefonica, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom all jointly insisting that Google should be paying them a special toll for carrying Google traffic:
Cesar Alierta, chairman of Telefonica, said Google should share some of its online advertising revenue with the telecoms groups, so as to compensate the network operators for carrying the technology company's bandwidth-hungry content over their infrastructure. "These guys [Google] are using the networks and they don't pay anybody," he said.
Yes, Google doesn't pay anything -- except for the billions they pay for bandwidth and extensive infrastructure. Were Google a telecommunications carrier, they'd be the world's third biggest according to Arbor Networks. It's absolutely stunning that such a ridiculous argument remains in circulation (and that many press outlets don't debunk the concept as painful nonsense). If electric companies went to AT&T or Telefonica to inform them that they wanted a cut of revenues on top of payment for electricity "just because" -- they'd be laughed out the building. Yet somehow we're supposed to take phone companies seriously, when in reality they're simply repeating total nonsense in the hopes that repetition will magically make it true.