December 30, 2006
AT&T/BellSouth Merger and the Controversy about Net Neutrality Provisions

In major news that will send shock waves throughout the media industry, FCC has approved the merger between AT&T and BellSouth. The impact this will have on Internet, mobile, and cable has yet to be seen, but the only thing we cannot doubt is that there will be an impact of some sort.

According to the FCC's press release, the decision requires broadband service to be offered throughout the company's entire region by the end of 2007, increased competition for pay television services, improved wireless products, enhanced national security, better disaster response and preparation, and a variety of other provisions.

Of most interest to the blogosphere has been the provision that "Effective on the Merger Closing Date, and continuing for 30 months thereafter, AT&T/BellSouth will conduct business in a manner that comports with the principles set forth in the Commission's Policy Statement, issued September 23, 2005."

Marguerite Reardon with CNET points out that the company will be well on its way back to dominating telephone operations, now holding as assets more than half the Internet access lines and telephone lines in the country.

Bill Herman points out that, for net neutrality proponents, this merely buys some time while they call for legislation in the coming year.

Some of these proponents are very positive, such as emptywheel on the Michigan Liberal blog, who writes, "With AT&T out of the anti-Net Neutrality business (for the next two years) we may be able to push through real legislation at the national level." And Andy Beal at Marketing Pilgrim points out that the concession from AT&T could be a small battle won for companies like Google and Yahoo!, who now have been given time to concentrate their efforts on net neutrality legislation. With a new Congress coming in, the optimism for neutrality provisions passing is gaining momentum.

Gordon Cook is very cynical that the Net Neturality clause will be held up at all, pointing out that Republican members of the FCC have indicated their lack of support for some of these concessions, and Cook questions whether there will be any enforcement to what is being widely considered as concrete terms of the deal. Mark Goldberg has reservations as well, questioning whether AT&T may find ways to demote whole types of content if it chooses to, since the neutrality clause was particularly in not showing favoritism to one competitor over another.

Mike at Techdirt points out that the net neutrality clause does not pertain to the company's IPTV services and writes that it may be possible that "AT&T promises not to violate network neutrality on a network they never intended to use that way, and carves out permission to use it on their new network, where they had planned all along to set up additional tollbooths." He concludes that "the 'concessions' AT&T agreed to aren't very big concessions at all."

See my post last month about AT&T's upcoming plans for video services and mobile entertainment as well.

See previous posts about net neutrality from C3 over the summer here and here and my post about the anti-FCC group FCC FU here.