AT&T, Content Creators Argue over “Broadband” Definition

Network owners and content providers are bumping heads again. Telecommunications giant AT&T filed comments with the FCC a couple of weeks ago urging the FCC to exclude real-time gaming (which generally requires connections with minimal “jitter”) from its definition of “broadband service” (as part of the “National Broadband Plan” laid out in the stimulus package). AT&T argues that such applications aren’t fundamental to the definition of broadband because they aren’t necessary to “participate in the internet economy.” Ars Technica’s Matt Lasar sums up the argument between telcos and the content industry:

AT&T did acknowledge that the capacity to play games should be included in a larger definition of broadband. But at present, the concept “should take the form of a baseline definition of the capabilities needed to support the applications and services Americans must access to participate in the Internet economy,” the company wrote, “to learn, train for jobs, and work online.” AT&T’s “minimal set of applications” includes the ability to use email, instant messaging, and basic Web surfing.

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All this has become part of the broadband definitional debate. And there’s a noticeable divide here between the telcos and cable companies on one side, and content providers and users on the other. The latter camp very much wants the FCC to embrace an “application-based approach” to the broadband definition question, as the FCC put it in its request for definitional comments.

Clearly, having an application-based definition of “broadband” would favor content creators and place the burden to deliver high-bandwidth services on the telcos. On the other hand, defining broadband using technical specifications would 1) leave the content industry out of consideration entirely, and 2) lead to arguments about which specifications to formally adopt (i.e. certain bandwidth limits would favor, for example, cable over satellite service). Either way, setting a national standard would change the rules of the game, and reduce companies’ ability and incentive to innovate.

It should shock no one that business interests are arguing over who should win out, now that the government has decided to interfere and create an unnecessary national policy. This is a textbook example of what happens when the government intervenes in a business it has, well, no business in. The network owners and the content industry have been evolving together since the Internet’s inception. Now that the feds want to throw billions of taxpayer dollars towards a national broadband policy, all the players are scrambling to carve out their stake in the deal.