SUPERCOMM 2009: Broadband Life and Net Neutrality

SUPERCOMM, the dominant telecom show for more than a decade, before the two owners split off to create separate shows, is back in town intent on raising awareness through a series of keynotes and sessions around what SUPERCOMM's managing director calls the "Broadband Life" philosophy.

The dominant topic in Chicago, so far, has been network neutrality. Pushed to the fore by the announcement that the Federal Communications Commission will begin discussions today around network neutrality, keynoters used their time on the platform to address the issue that may significantly impact the cost of delivering live or on-demand streaming content.

For instance, Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon (the landline carrier), in a keynote on the opening day of SUPERCOMM, blasted net neutrality as a "mistake - pure and simple - better suited for the analog world than the digital world."

"If we can't differentiate between packets, we can't prioritize emergency communications for first responders, telesurgery or heart-monitor reading for digital medicine," said Seidenberg, somewhat skewing the issue of network neutrality, in which the FCC is proposing that packet content can be identified but that premium pricing cannot be charged for any one packet type.

AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, James Cicconi, was even more forceful as part of a panel that rapidly devolved in to a discussion about net neutrality.

"I think it is a dangerous illusion for anyone in government to think that more regulation will provoke more investment, not less," said Cicconi, blasting reports in favor of net neutrality that are "written by groups that have never run a network, nor do they have discernible investment experience."

"The FCC is playing a very dangerous game if it listens to any advice of this nature," he said.

Cicconi is, according to Slashdot, being accused by a pro-net-neutrality group Free Press of sending out an email to all 300,000 AT&T employees suggesting that employees weigh in with the FCC on their dislike of net neutrality.

"Coming from one of the company’s most senior executives," the group said, "it’s hard to imagine AT&T employees thinking the memo was merely a suggestion."

What's most interesting to me, personally, is that the topic of net neutrality was raised last week during a planning call for a panel I will speak on later today. At that time, the idea of discussing net neutrality during the panel was downplayed, but after the major carriers came out so vociferously against it in the first day of SUPERCOMM, it is sure to be a topic of conversation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Google, who maintains that net neutrality is key for Internet growth, has found an unlikely ally in Verizon Wireless.

Jointly issued by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam, the statement noted the historic background of the Internet's intentional inter-connecting of multiple protocols.

"The programming language of the Internet, which was designed over forty years ago by engineers who wanted the freedom to communicate from any computer, anywhere in the world," the joint statement said. "There is no central authority that can step in and prevent you from talking to someone else, or that imposes rules prescribing what services should be available."

"Advanced and open networks are essential to the future development of the Web. Policies that continue to provide incentives for investment and innovation are a vital part of the debate we are now beginning," the statement continued, "but flexibility in government policy is key. Policymakers sometimes fall prey to the temptation to write overly detailed rules, attempting to predict every possible scenario and address every possible concern. This can have unintended consequences."

Jan Maciejewski, whose role as Managing Director is to bring the show back into heightened relevance, explained the reason for using SUPERCOMM as a launch point for these discussions.

Maciejewski has been hard at work broadening the show's perspective to address broadband across both wireline and wireless. One way to do so was to attract top speakers to help set the tone for the future of the show, including Aneesh Chopra, recently appointed as the first-ever CTO of the United States.

"We are extremely grateful for Aneesh's decision to come speak about broadband," said Maciejewski, noting that Chopra's role as CTO of the United States provides a good platform from which to discuss the transformation of the U.S. into a broadband nation, including rural and urban deployment, as well as providing direction on the strategic and tactical goals of stimulus funding.

"We will also have sessions that follow along the lines of Aneesh's vision," Maciejewski continued, "providing attendees with guidance on how to apply for funding. Beyond Aneesh's keynote, we also have representation from the NTIA and speeches from the CEOs of leading service providers to help give attendees a sense of the direction of industry."

The NTIA presenter referred to is Larry Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who will discuss the $7.2 billion allocated to national broadband stimulus that many of the large carriers have opted out of. Joining him will be Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator, Rural Utilities Service (RUS) from the USDA, who is overseeing the rural broadband stimulus program.

"We want the show to focus on the business-to-business aspect of the service provider who might buy a set of products or services to augment its offering to the consumer," said Maciejewski. "Nearly 70 percent of all respondents to our recent believe uninterrupted broadband access should be as readily available as other utilities like electricity and water."

Chopra acknowledged during his speech today that a public-private partnership is needed for rural broadband growth, but even rural broadband - and the expansion of the "broadband life" - are somewhat hostage in the net neutrality debate, even though recent events have shown that rural broadband penetration lags far behind urban adoption.

AT&T's John Stankey, CEO of AT&T Operations, acknowledged that his company and the wireline Verizon carrier have chosen to forego the rural broadband stimulus money due to the requirement to spend it on rural build out. The large Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) have long faced significant regulatory hurdles surrounding small, incumbent rural telephone operators that were never subsumed into "Ma Bell" when AT&T was the primary nationwide telephone carrier.

"Regulation should understand that there’s plenty of competition in the market today," Stankey said.

Even Congressional representatives are confused by the whole net neutrality debate, and the use of rural broadband stimulus funds to raise the bar on low broadband rates in rural locations.

Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Congressional representative from Tennessee, appears to think net neutrality will limit content owners from pushing their content out to the end user.

"Net neutrality, as I see it, is the fairness doctrine for the Internet," said Blackburn, who represents a district in the Nashville area that is heavily dominated by content producers. "What they do not want is the federal government policing how they deploy their content over the Internet and they want the ISPs to manage their networks and deploy the content however they have agreed on with ISP. They do not want a czar of the Internet to determine when they can deploy their creativity over the Internet."

SUPERCOMM runs from October 21-23, 2009 at Chicago's McCormick Place exhibition hall. Portions of the event will also be streamed.

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