Battle for control over Web being fought on several fronts

The recent attempt by some countries to place control of the Internet under the United Nations achieved very little success. This result could be viewed as a victory by those who fear a return to the days when the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was solely in command of international telecommunications. However, the battle for control is not over and is being fought on multiple fronts.One of the major threats appears in the form of quality of service (QoS) standards. While most observers would agree that something needs to be done to improve real-time services, such as voice and video, there is disagreement on what it should be. Some believe the simplest solution is more bandwidth, which would preclude the need for complex QOS solutions. Others believe the Internet should be capable of emulating a circuit-switched network. Presently, this latter approach is driving a number of standards-development activities, many of which fall under the umbrella of the “IP Multimedia Subsystem” (IMS) — an ITU-driven process with origins in mobile communications.
Initiatives like IMS offer solutions to the challenge of providing QoS for services and how to bill for those services, which would seem to be desirable and non-threatening. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Such initiatives could put the telcos (wireless and wireline) and cablecos in control of the Internet. Evolving the network (via standards) in a way that supports the business model of the dominant service providers would restrict the emergence of competing business models and the standards required to support them. Let’s consider two views of the future and their impacts on motivation.
The first scenario is that already envisaged by the current set of telecom service providers. Telcos and cablecos see a world in which they would provide customers with everything from soup to nuts (or, in telco-speak, carriage to content). Their model includes packaging and distributing content. In this scenario, the telecom service provider would focus on selling more and more content and would see itself as a source, perhaps the only source, of “high-quality” services for its customers. Quality and pricing could become biased in favour of content provided by the telecom service providers. They would have very little motivation to support, let alone initiate, standards that would benefit potential competitors in the provision of content.

ensuring a level playing field

The second scenario is one in which the telcos and cablecos would provide no content. In many cases, customers would access content directly from original sources — for example, from television broadcasters anywhere in the world. Customers would pay content providers directly for content via subscriptions or usage fees. Customers and content providers would pay their respective telecom service providers only for network services. The carriers’ focus for network standards would be more neutral, which would ensure a level playing field for all content providers.
Arguments for and against separation of carriage and content are not new, but they need to be revisited. If stakeholders do not actively promote the validity of business models that do not favour the dominant carriers, the first scenario could become entrenched. The next generation of the Internet would then start to look much like the public switched telephone network in one sense. The ITU would be in control, supported by the dominant service providers.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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