TELECOMMUNICATIONS giant AT&T made a welcome concession to federal regulators this week that could help preserve the Internet's role as an engine for innovation and competition.
In order to win approval from the Federal Communications Commission for its $84.5-billion buyout of BellSouth, the reconstituted Ma Bell agreed Thursday to not offer for two years "any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes" any data transmitted over its broadband network. In other words, AT&T guaranteed what has come to be known as "Net neutrality" -- giving websites and services equal access to Internet users. The only exceptions are for AT&T's new TV service and the managed networks it sells to businesses.
Net neutrality became an issue last year after AT&T and BellSouth executives talked about making online companies cover more of the cost of broadband networks. In particular, they raised the prospect of charging high-traffic companies such as Google an extra fee to improve the picture quality of online movies and TV shows. Such charges could help established companies fend off upstarts by erecting a cost barrier to entry, suffocating the next YouTubes and Flickrs in their cribs.
The idea stirred so much opposition in the tech industry that two Democrats on the FCC refused to approve AT&T's purchase of BellSouth unless it agreed to Net neutrality. With only four of the five commissioners voting on the merger -- one of the three Republicans recused himself -- the Democrats essentially held veto power on the deal, and AT&T finally gave in.