Net Neutrality, Competition and Target Blindness.

Yesterday I had the misfortune of attempting to have a conversation with someone who was certain that there was no problem with competition without net neutrality.

Instead, I explored their perspective. The only thing I could come up with is that when some people speak of competition, they think of competition between Internet Service Providers  (ISPs). They do not think of the ISPs themselves competing with services that are simply accessed through their network.

It’s mind-boggling to me that people don’t understand that issue of disruption within the Internet.

It also boggles me that such people are in regulatory frameworks, and these are people who define discussions had about such neutrality. It’s no wonder that assuring equity between companies providing services on the internet and ISPs is such a moot point at this time.

And therefore, we can’t get beyond network neutrality to the real crux of things.

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Beyond Network Neutrality, and TATT

Net neutrality is repealed, and while the long battle over it seems over, there’s still some hope for it.

There’s been folly in conversations related to Network Neutrality and Over The Top Services (OTT). It limits the conversation to be about who owns the infrastructure and who uses the infrastructure – which is a good place to start, but is at least a decade outdated. Even the global conversation has fallen behind reality; the wheels of bureaucracy turn much slower than technology and technology use evolves.

We live in a world where the infrastructure, while important, isn’t the only thing that can be used to be unfair. Amazon and Google are presently in a content war with each other; the latest blow being Alexa being unable to pay YouTube videos. In an age of ‘IoT’, or ‘Internet of Things’, devices unable to use services isn’t being determined by who owns the infrastructure – it’s about who owns the services as well.

Right now, getting information from the browser you’re reading this in will tell what sort of browser you’re using, what operating system and what version – amongst other things. It doesn’t say anything about you, personally – Luddites, come back! But anyone with a website or a service can see what sort of software you’re using to connect to them – just so that they know how to change the content, if necessary. They can also tell where you are with a level of knowledge that can be a bit disconcerting – where your computer, phone or tablet – or internet enabled refrigerator, for that matter – is communicating from.

And they can decide what you can see and what you can’t. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found YouTube videos that I couldn’t watch because, ‘content is unavailable in your country’. Here I am, an Amazon Prime user, and I can’t watch certain content because… ‘content is unavailable in your country’. There are reasons for the latter – I think they are bad reasons, but there are reasons related to broadcast rights. And yet, it shows that infrastructure isn’t the only thing that can be used to make services incompatible.

This is nothing new. The Browser Wars were the first real issue – and if you ask a web developer of worth, they will tell you that they persist, even when only a Cold War. When an app only works on Android or Apple device, it’s the same thing. Which brings up what can go into the Apple Store or the Google Store – and how it’s approved and whether they can pull it or simply decide that they don’t want to carry it because it competes with their own service.  

This is the larger conversation that is being missed by just about everyone. When Network Neutrality conversations first started, this issue hadn’t evolved – and despite it’s name, the overall concept has been specialized when, in fact, it should be generalized.

When it comes to the hardware and infrastructure alone, the Carterfone laid the groundwork in the United States that ISPs like Digicel are against: that devices could be connected to infrastructure owned by a corporation as long as they did not damage the infrastructure. Moving that forward, the same should apply to services. It’s that simple, but the waters are muddied based on the misconception that it’s their network. From a legal standing, this may be true – but from a business perspective, it’s not as true: Without customers, the network has no value, and therefore the customers also have control of the network – assuming that there is competition, and assuming that the ISPs will not coordinate to assure that Law makes it possible for all ISPs to throttle communications as they see fit. Bad assumptions, really, if we take a look around just about anywhere in the world.

And on top of all of that, we have the lack of network neutrality in services being provided across these same networks.

TATT needs to step back and understand the underlying philosophy and not get drawn into the weeds. Does TATT stand for corporations, or does TATT stand for the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago?

That answer will dictate their policy. I expect that they’ll tell us soon enough.

Net Neutrality and Trinidad and Tobago

Internet Innovation is The Goose That Laid the Golden EggThe global debate on Net Neutrality persists and the consequences are writ large for consumers everywhere.

Yet, there’s almost no interest in the Net Neutrality issues arising lately – I spent my time advocating for it to the uncaring masses who are more intent on other things that they believe are more important.

It is important though. Very important.

David Pogue of Scientific American has a great summarization of the net neutrality debate. I suppose the core of the problems happening over the heads of those in the world – not just the United States – is how the FCC classifies things in an antiquated system rather than create a new classification. The lines between being a provider of telecommunications and providing telecommunication services are said to be blurred, but the reality is that they no longer exist. The people who own the infrastructure are competing with those that don’t.

Businesses that do not own the infrastructure are at a disadvantage. They can be squeezed out by those who do own the infrastructure, effectively monopolizing user services. The end user – us, all of us – doesn’t get the variety that it would otherwise have when those that control the infrastructure can make sure that their services can run faster than their competitors. That’s the core of the issue for users.

The Local Context.

In Trinidad and Tobago and likely throughout the Caribbean, Digicel is cheering the repeal of what was called Network Neutrality (I could say it wasn’t for a variety of reasons). Their premise is actually quite real – they are rolling out infrastructure in the region at a cost, and shouldn’t they get their cost back? Of course they should, why would anyone invest in something that they don’t get paid back for? There is no digital philanthropy here, and Trinidad and Tobago’s National ICT Plans have always pushed broadband penetration, enough so that I’m surprised an over-exuberant feminist hasn’t accused the phrasing of misogyny.

Others in the local context of telecommunications have been relatively silent so far – perhaps wisely so – despite the fact that we’re connected to the U.S. pretty directly economically, through Internet connections, and through other things.

What it means, though, is that applications not owned by local providers – Digicel and bMobile mainly, since the most common data usage is through mobile phones, is that they could create competing applications to… for example… WhatsApp, and make WhatsApp undependable in the same twist. And of course, since these same providers have to report to the government by Law, will give away the encrypted anonymity that seems to only hide poor political commentary and bad pornography. Maybe there’s more to it than that, but I haven’t been added to the LOLCats group (please, don’t invite me).

It means local startup companies will have to get the blessings of those who own the infrastructure and maintain a relationship with them – practically at gunpoint.

Yet Digicel makes a valid point: Why invest in infrastructure if you don’t get paid for it?

The debate is much more nuanced than what is presented – arguably, by design. Show me a Member or Parliament, though, who has taken a stance on network neutrality. They don’t really care too much, and that National ICT plan doesn’t address it in any way. It makes us completely dependent on our own legislation, and our own legislation – despite some bold and debatable efforts by the present government – is not fast, is not as comprehensive as they might like to think, and is going to require more intellectual capital to debate and enforce than anyone seems interested in mustering.

We’re along for the ride in Trinidad and Tobago, hoping for a water taxi but instead getting a ferry to Tobago in a country that should be making strides toward progress… not stagnation. It should be making bold moves – debatable moves – that push the envelope for local talent to strike it’s colours boldly on an infrastructure being built rather than making a mockery of it by making it consumption only with no regard to using it for creating foreign exchange (we can talk about those banks another time, right?).

We could be using our infrastructure to leverage foreign exchange income, subsidizing it’s roll out while diversifying the economy. That’s not what we’re doing, and that’s why Network Neutrality is not even discussed outside of Digicel Press Releases.