This blog was written by our CEO, Olav van Doorn, a 20+ year telecom veteran.
A few weeks ago the public and the press praised the world’s top tech firms for their push back against a proposed repeal of net neutrality standards.
Leading up to July 12th, the Day of Action when Americans could voice their opinion on the matter to the FCC, screens were splashed with headlines like, “Tech firms unite”, from publications like Fortune and the BCC. CNN and Recode, amongst others, saying the companies were planning to “protect” and “defend” net neutrality.
But when the day finally came, the response from tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon was lackluster, even subdued. Google sent out an email and posted a blog, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a status on his account and Amazon hid a call to action within ads on the right side of their home screen. The response did not match the media hype because for the tech titans, net neutrality is actually just a means to an end.
But, let’s back up a little.
A few months ago, late night host John Oliver called on the American people to protest FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to roll back Obama-era net neutrality standards. Viewers and activists did it with such force and conviction that the site was overloaded and comments were cut off. So this time around, various websites, tech firms and organizations rallied behind the renewed effort to make sure the people’s — and their — voices were heard.
Essentially, net neutrality is vital to the openness of the internet. That’s because net neutrality rules prevent Internet Service Providers from having the authority to block or slow certain content, applications, products, traffic or websites. It bars them from making a profit off of such actions, too.
This is seemingly serious business for companies like Google and Facebook who rely on the connections supplied by Internet Service Providers to connect with their users and give them an enjoyable — i.e. profitable — experience. Just imagine if another search engine company paid an ISP to be faster than Google, for example.
So while sites like Reddit, Kickstarter, Netflix and Twitter posted concise and creative messages notifying users of the Day of Action — why were the tech giant’s ‘rally cries’ tepid? Because while net neutrality ensures a level playing field for now, they have plans to circumvent it all together in a bid for a competitive edge.
Right now we know that Microsoft, Equinix, Facebook, Google and Amazon (amongst others) are working on technology that would allow them to bypass not only the ISP’s but the world’s leading hardware and software companies. They’re creating their own networks. And to put it simply, this could give them total control over how you view and access content.
The companies working on this are a part of the Telecom Infra Project. The PR message they’re driving behind this collaboration is that the traditional telecoms can’t meet their demands. The website reads, “The Telecom Infra Project is an engineering focused initiative… that aim(s) to reimagine the traditional approach to building and deploying telecom network infrastructure.” But TIP isn’t just rethinking it, they’re rebuilding it. TIP members are working on acquiring their own data centers, hardware, software and physical fiber lines to create their very own, controlled, networks.
Investing in an entire global network infrastructure over utilizing what is already built and globally available stems from an ulterior motive.
Admittedly, there are disparities between internet connections across the planet. But the kind of connections these companies rely on most — making sure you can log into their social network, download a song, shoot off an email, type in a search — can be found almost everywhere. Investing in an entire global network infrastructure over utilizing what is already built and globally available stems from an ulterior motive. And you shouldn’t be fooled by it any longer.
Leaders at the National Broadcasters Association are keeping tabs. Dennis Wharton, the executive vice president of communications, recently had some harsh words for Microsoft after the tech giant announced a proposal to use tv white space to reach rural Americans without access to broadband internet. “It’s the height of arrogance for Microsoft—a $540 billion company—to demand free, unlicensed spectrum after refusing to bid on broadcast TV airwaves in the recent FCC incentive auction.”
Wharton is clearly protecting his own here. But, the battle for American computer, tablet and tv screens is more complicated than the idea that the old-giant is flustered by savvy-newcomers.
Firstly, right now net neutrality laws apply to Internet Service Providers, and companies like Google aren’t technically ISP’s. This means we can’t hold them accountable to the same laws and standards and a traditional Internet Service Provider, and we also can’t expect them to be self-regulating.
Then there’s the fact that these tech companies are some of the most powerful and impactful on the planet. There are over 40,000 Google searches every second, 1.2+ billion people have Facebook accounts, and Amazon raked in a cool $35.7 billion during the first quarter of the year with a market value of some $481 billion. AT&T, a major telecom player in the United States and the rest of the world, is worth about half that at $245 billion.
And as you can see, it’s not just the market value, it’s the number of people and screens these tech companies reach.
AT&T serves some 355 million people. In contrast, in 2016, it was reported Google had 1 billion monthly users. Today we worry about telecom conglomerates controlling our internet traffic for a profit — but imagine what kind of impact these huge tech companies could have if given unfettered control of their own networks. A tech company that also controls your internet network could restrict or block access to competitors, even funnel you towards the content, tech or products they can make a profit off of.
If you’re wondering why this isn’t front page news, it’s probably because it’s going to be a good decade before TIP members have actually built their own networks. After that, it’s going to take time to master rolling them out for the public as well as the global enterprise — something the ISP’s have had decades to master.
The tech giants haven’t exactly been hiding this, either — as it’s something pretty big to keep under wraps. WIRED, for example, highlighted some of the conflicts and hesitations these companies have had to net neutrality in the past in an article leading up to the Day of Action.
The fact of the matter is that consumers need to be aware of what’s going on and how the telecom industry is changing. Today we’re arguably more intertwined in people’s lives than ever before, and our ethics and how we hold ourselves accountable have direct impacts on people’s lives.
By ignoring or glossing over the actions, and possible motives, of the big tech companies as they tread water in the telecom industry is a disservice to the public. If the Day of Action taught us anything it is that when people are informed they can affect change. There have been some 16-million comments submitted to the FCC and it’s estimated 100,000 internet companies prompted their customers and users to join the fight. Whether chairman Ajit Pai takes them into consideration is another story, but without an informed public he wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.
At the end of the day, consumers drive the market and public opinion can incite change — you just need to be paying attention.
This blog was written by our CEO, Olav van Doorn, a 20+ year telecom veteran. Get in touch and see what else he has to say by connecting on LinkedIn.