It consisted of two talks. The first was by Jim Kohlenberger, now Executive Director, of the VON Coalition. But when that group launched he was a staffer in the Clinton White House, working on telecommunications issues.
The second talk was by Tom Evslin. Before launching his Fractals of Change blog (and the novel Hackoff) he was CEO of ITXC, a VOIP provider.
Jonathan Askin – For the first time policymakers are looking at regulating the Internet. And we’re starting to see the possible implications. Now we have no regulation of the facility but regulation of the application.
Executive Director, VON coalition
The original conference of 10 years ago was based on a petition filed before the FCC by 120 long distance companies. They wanted to ban Internet telephony software. Jeff brought people together to fight something that would have stopped Internet innovation for a decade. Fortunately he prevailed. This community got activated. This was a huge lesson from that petition.
Just last year we saw VOIP triple. Now everyone wants to upgrade. You’re seeing amazing new innovations on the Internet. We know that when anything touches the Internet new innovations are possible.
We’re seeing people try to drive by looking at the rear view mirror. We need to help them turn on the headlights, look forward and see what this can be. It can be profound. We heard Commissioner Copps talk about Internet freedom should be good for America. Switching to VOIP could save $50 billion. Emergency services could get a set of breakthrough advances. For the disabled community it means a host of new things they can do. This is their killer app. But too often we say just apply yesterday’s disability rules. We could do a lot more by looking through the headlights.
Ten years ago we won because we hadn’t stirred up opposition. We didn’t have opposition. We are a real threat now. We have disintermediated a traditional industry, and they’re fighting back any way they can. That’s to be expected. We hear Whitacre say his pipes are being used free by Google, and we know they pay their ISP. But what is really happening is not that scary.
One hopeful sign is Verizon just agreed to pay CBS for content on FIOS. If we think the cable model content owners don’t pay cable networks, it works the other way around. Networks are worthless without content. Despite all the bad language the balance of power may not be as much with the RBOCs as it seems.
One thing we had with Katrina was all the people who were unreachable. If you had VOIP you could plug into some wireless broadband and you were back in business. But if you were in a homeless shelter your number died.That made sense 25 years ago, but in fact it means nothing now.
If these people had wireless broadband these people would not have disappeared.
We tried to give those people voice mail at the last minute, but now another hurricane season is coming. In the absence of visible volunteer activity Pulver.com and Evslin Consulting have asked the FCC for a simple regulation.
All local carriers subject to the 911 regulation should be required to provide voice mail and call forwarding on an emergency basis to their customers. This has to be done in advance. If they don’t make it available they have to port to those who are willing.
We’re asking the FCC to act on this before the next hurricane season. We filed the petition. The FCC has not yet put it out for public notice. Apparently they don’t have to put it out. It would be helpful, if you have influence with the FCC, that you use it. It doesn’t hurt to send an e-mail to chairman Kevin Martin – all you ask if that the proposal be put out for comment. It is important that this be done.
If we’re the infrastructure of the future we have to take responsibility. The emergency system has to be adequate given what technology can do. That includes not letting telephone service become unusuable because the line goes under.
After the two men finished Askin sat them down for a little Q&A. But first he made a little speech of his own, giving the conference’s background.
Askin – When we started VON was just voice. Now we can do more. Now, since we provide traditional voice, we’re replicated like it. And were moving down a path where nothing will be free soon. We’re seeing a monumental deregulation of the transmission facilities. We’re losing out ability to connect because there’s a limited number of such companies. On the other side we’re seeing the air-lifting of traditional telecomm regulation onto what looked like traditional telecomm services. Because you’re a voice application, you too are going to be sucked into the traditional Title II regulations, so you’re regulated like other voice or video applications.
A year ago we saw the Sununu and Pickering amendments.. I thought we had cleared the way. Turns out were not the big players, and were not as savvy as the Bells. We ended up losing. It got all kludged it was amended in a confusing way, and we lost. Then the Bells came out with their “much broader relief” – everyone was using VOIP to get rid of all their regulations. They were all hiding behind us, saying they were speaking for us, and saying this is what to do to make the Internet grow.
Now we have a bad bill in the House, and the Senate discussing how to weigh in. If you look at the House hearing, we had just ont Internet player, Amazon, and all the traditional legacy telecomm players. No one was speaking for the entrepreneurs. Jeff Citron did not address the net neutrality question.
What did we do worng? What can we do better?
There are big interests aligned with us. Vonage, Amazon, Google, others who grew form this space and now have their own interests, different from the Google of tomorrow.
Kohlenberger – There are some lessons we’ve learned. We have to plug into Washington. The other important poiece is when we band together we win together. A number of key battles were won that were critical to a free Internet where you could innovate.
The access charge debate is a good example. In VOIP there are 5 or so petitions that would eliminate the ability to offer flat rate services. The same thing that let Tom’s Internet service be $20 AYCE have been great. Some say the net neutrality debate is really about charging access charges on a Bell network. This is the same subcommittee that considered the legislation to prevent these access charges from applying to Internet services.
There’s a third thing we need to pay attention to. This wireless microphone might become a wireless phone, and so E911 would apply to it.
There’s an overly broad definition of Internet services in this Barton bill. These definitions matter. Because the FCC rules on E911 exist, if you can’t provide it you can’t sell service, imagine what happens when you apply that to a Web site. A gerber.com baby food site – you can click on their Web site, they have a VOIP service, and you can get a neutritional expert. Now because the definition is so bad, that Gerber web site would have to shut down the feature, it would be under the same E911 restriction. I’m not sure giving mothers a lifeline in the middle of the night is what people need to kill. If these definitions are written overly broad it will take everything.
Evslin – We need to focus on solutions that make these regulations unnecessary, that don’t pit one industry against another. We need to get it to a place where we don’t need regulation, and to me that means more compeitution. As much attention as we can pay to things like more unregulated spectrum, getting restrictions eliminated on municipal wifi, that a lot of these problems will go away, and you can go back to work.
We’re in more danger of duopoly than ever before. We have an FCC that has shifted 180 degrees. AT&T and the Bells and MCI used to fight one another to a standstill. It was good for everyone. Now there’s just the local phone companies. One of their greatest efficiencies is they could fold in their lobbying and not fight one antoher. We really are at a dangerous time, and we do need to devote time to the solutions, but just as you were doing before whenever we can afford to stop tinkering around the edges we need to look at the structural sloutions that don’t require this regulatory interference.
Another problem is we’re falling behind the world. We really are. We are behind Britain, France, and Korea in broadband access. Their access is better, chceaper, and you get more bandwidth. They didn’t trade off anything. If we’re not there this is not a world where we have any great advantage anymore. China may pass us. India may pass us. It’s not just a threat to our own ability to having good Internet access at home. The bigger issue is the U.S. is becoming non competitive because our ommunication infrastructure and regulatory infrastructure is inferior where we used to lead.
Askin – We have among the brightest minds on the Internet. We need to hear it.
We made it clear this morning that net neutrality means 20 different htings. We had 12 panelists with 25 definitions. What can we do to harness the people who want a better Internet.
Evslin – We need to speak simply.
Kohlenberger – Jonathan asked who makes money off voice. It’s the wrong question. Today we can each become a phone company with our own software. Anyone today can become the phone company for the planet. That’s what VOIP does. But this is about you. You need to speak, change the world, and innovate.
Question from Dave Hughes – I haven’t heard a word about electing telecomm engineering constituencies, or getting constituents to sit down and directly educating Congressmen for a long haul. You can do this. I’ve been doing this a long time. Nothing substitutes for getting people in the saddle. The point is you change the United States by electing people who know what they’re doing. You back ‘em, find em, or educate the incumbents.
We need engineers in office. Until that changes you won’t get a lot of change.
Kohlenberger – The answer is one we don’t like. We have to learn from the Bell companies. They understand policy is important and devote resources. They have a simple message. Third they all know how to speak from the same songsheet. And they know what they can achieve and focus. What I find frustrating about our community is we don’t have a clear agenda. It is a huge indictment that we don’t have a broadly agreed on policy agenda, even a definition of net neutrality. We need to figure out what we want, make it simple, make the alliances and get it.
Askin – There were two hearings last week, Wednesday and Thursday. I had to sit in the overflow room and got there at 9 AM, when it started at 10. It was the same platitudes. The day before there was a wonderful hearing before only 20 people. It was the CEO of Slingmedia, which is doing to video what we did to voice. They obliterate geographic boundaries for video. And TiVo was there. This is a great vision. It fell on deaf ears. The Congressmen there were copyright advocates mostly trying to protect content holders. There were almost no staffers, no media, no audience listening to a great vision. I would love to see that reverse, standing room only for the innovators.
Question from the audience – We at EFF Austin have lobbied effectively a couple of times. Most recently we joined a coalition, or formed one, called Save Muni Wireless, because there was language that opposed municipal wireless projects, and a strong intention to do those in Texas. We learned how to lobby. It was really persistance that paid off. We had a woman named Adina Levin who talked to legislators 2-3 times. If we had not been persistent the legislation would have passed. If we don’t continue talking to them we could be neutralized next time.
Kohlenberger – Because Texas went the right way a lot of states followed.
The network Ron’s company (Tropos) set up in New Orleans was the only thing that survived Katrina. Ron’s company brought in armored cars to make sure they could service that netowrk.Now it’s being supported by a muni network. Their 911 is over it, the phone network is over it, and yet there’s a bill in Louisiana to prevent those kinds of things. People have to get engaged.
What worked in Texas is people told a positive story of the Internet. That’s the thing to remember.