Next month, the world meets in Dubai to discuss the Internet’s future. On the docket: basic questions about sustaining this vital resource.
History’s greatest invention needs a tune-up. Representatives from almost every nation in the world will soon meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to attend the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT or “wicket” as some say). From Dec. 3 to 4, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will host representatives of its 193 member countries, who will discuss high-level issues in telecommunications, like how best to foster continued development of Internet infrastructure across the planet.
The conference originated from two sources, said ITU Counselor Richard Hill. Several developing countries announced that they wanted existing regulations to be modernized. And some developed countries thought many of the outdated regulations could be abolished. “I think it’s safe to say there’s a general agreement that everyone wants the same thing: more telecommunications and more Internet,” Hill said. “But there’s some disagreement on exactly how to achieve that. The purpose of the conference is to discuss that and come up with an agreed path forward.”
It’s generally agreed that the previous WCIT, which occurred in 1988, created a financial and ideological framework that allowed telecommunications and the Internet, in particular, to flourish and support the information-based culture that much of the world enjoys today. The goal of this year’s conference is to hone the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a treaty developed at the first conference that aims to facilitate global interconnection and interoperability of telecommunications traffic across national borders.
Once the wording of the new regulations is decided and each nation ratifies the document, nations will be treated as sovereign entities, free to implement the conditions of the treaty in their dealings with outside nations as they see fit.
The ITU’s role in the conference is that of arbitrator. The ITU isn’t an enforcement agency, nor is it attempting to control the Internet, as some have suggested. As far as the Internet and telecommunications go, the ITU is simply a watchman, establishing a written interpretation of the will of the world. “Ultimately the stakeholders are the people who use telecommunications, which is all of us,” Hill said.
The ITRs cover many different topics. Some of the main points of discussion will be: preventing fraud and cybercrime, promoting equipment standards, reducing the cost of mobile roaming, empowering consumers, protecting the human right of communication, improving telecommunications access for people with disabilities, improving energy efficiency, promoting the responsible disposal of electronic devices, taxation and interoperability.
“On some topics, there’s universal agreement already,” Hill said. “They just have to fine-tune the language. On other topics, the positions are very far apart.” Aside from the topics that nations tend to more or less agree on, there are three main fronts where battles are being fought. One battle pertains to identifying the best method for reducing international mobile roaming rates. The other two battles are related to the financial model and security of the Internet.
Just as Democrats and Republicans will eternally debate the best model for stimulating the national economy, there are two competing philosophies that overarch WCIT’s most contentious discussions. One camp wants the market to dictate how telecommunications infrastructure is developed and managed. This camp believes the Internet has worked well so far operating on a privatized, liberalized model and therefore that is how telecommunications should continue to run. The competing philosophy wants increased government involvement in infrastructure development and management as a means to ensure adequate financing, fairness and security.
One of the biggest challenges in creating a treaty that includes nearly every nation in the world is the disparity between the most developed and least developed countries, ITU Director Malcolm Johnson pointed out during a September press briefing. What works well in the U.S. or Japan may or may not work well in developing Africa or developing Asia. Creating a standardized infrastructure framework for the world, therefore, proves very difficult, Johnson said, but making low-cost Internet access available for the world’s citizenry is a noble goal worth pursuing and within WCIT’s purview.
The United States’ main goal for WCIT, U.S. Ambassador Terry Kramer stated, is to ensure that the telecommunications and Internet sectors thrive. The U.S. belongs to the philosophical camp of not changing things if they’ve been proven to work well. Kramer said the U.S. would oppose any major changes to the existing ITRs during the conference, particularly any that would undermine net neutrality or endanger freedom of expression.
The U.S. delegation has strong support, Kramer said, and comprises more than 100 members, including the FCC, U.S. departments of Commerce and Defense, Google, Facebook, PayPal, civil society organizations, free speech organizations, “and a lot of nations that agree with the U.S.” The U.S. also has detractors in the conference.
Some of the biggest rifts in ideology were highlighted after proposals put forward by the Association of European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) were attacked by the U.S. and its ideological allies. Among ETNO’s proposals was a financial element that would allow a “sending party network pays” model. Whereas the existing Internet model allows the free flow of information, the sending party network pays model requires the party sending information over the Internet to pay a tax to the receiving network operator.
This aspect of ETNO’s proposal gained popularity among some developing nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as some parts of Europe, because it provides an income source for nations that are in the early stages of building out their fixed networks. It sounds like an excellent solution for nations that have few funding options, Kramer said, but such a model would be detrimental to the entire Internet and is ultimately a bad idea.
“I think a lot of [ETNO’s supporters] have an old business model in mind,” Kramer said. “Many of them are from countries that haven’t liberalized, they have primarily a single telephone company and they’re used to the old voice model where they can collect that termination fee for accepting traffic from abroad. It’s a very old model, it worked very well early on, when you had an environment where people weren’t certain about the technology, and a working environment where the paid model was the primary way that things operated.”
ETNO responded to its critics in a letter, stating that such a model would not be mandated, but just an option to be used by Internet operators “when commercially suitable.” The organization also pointed out that such an arrangement already exists to accommodate “high-value traffic” transmitted in the paid-peering arrangement between Netflix, Level 3 and Comcast. ETNO has stated that it “fully supports the principle of an open Internet and does not believe that its proposal would hamper [an open Internet].”
The problem with even allowing the sending-party-network-pays model as an option, Kramer said, is that it would eventually stifle Internet availability. For example, if Khan Academy, an educational video website, was required to pay a tax each time it sent data to an African nation operating under the sending-party-network-pays model, Khan Academy’s owner might decide to stop offering his website in that country. Or alternatively, the company’s owner could choose to start charging users subscription fees, as Netflix does, to cover the costs of sending traffic to countries operating under a sending-party-network-pays model. This model would chip away at the free model that has made the Internet so successful, Kramer said.
“Our philosophy very much has been: Allow the markets to be liberalized,” he said. “Allow multiple providers of broadband access, whether they are mobile or fixed providers, to provide that service to end users, stimulate competition that drives down pricing, and in turn you get lots of users who are willing to pay for that broadband access. And that should be the model that funds infrastructure development, broadband development and creates a cycle of economic growth where you have more and more broadband access. That creates an Internet economy and Internet access, that creates more affluence that then creates more money in the telecom sector.”
He added, “That kind of privatized, liberalized model is the one that has worked not only in the U.S., but it’s worked in South Africa, it’s worked in Ghana, it’s worked in Kenya, it’s worked in Korea, it’s worked in Japan.”
Another departure from traditional Internet governance is a proposal that would send traffic through designated access points as a means to regulate Internet content. Currently organizations like the Internet Society, Internet Engineering Task Force and World Wide Web Consortium work as part of a multistakeholder effort to determine how best to govern Internet traffic and handle security issues like spam, malware and hackers. Proponents of the traditional approach to Internet governance appreciate the competence and agility of small, specialized organizations with stakes in the Internet’s continued availability and openness.
The U.S. is content with the current form of Internet governance, Kramer said, and opposes proposals that would put controls on the Internet. “There are over 425,000 different global routes for traffic,” he said. “There are 40,000 different network operators serving 600 million websites.” The huge number of working pieces that compose the Internet have come to interconnect in such a way so that rates have been negotiated steadily downward through the years, reducing costs for everyone.
“If you force certain routes, you’re almost creating a monopoly route,” Kramer said. “Prices go back up and then the cost of Internet services go up, the cost of broadband provision goes up, and again it limits the audience that’s available.” Furthermore, mandating regulated traffic routes also readies the slippery slope to Internet censorship, he said.
One of WCIT’s main goals is to find a way to lower rates on international roaming. Some nations favor rate regulation as a way to lower rates. By simply ordering lower rates, rates can easily be reduced. But this is problematic, Kramer said, because service providers might be led to subsidize their losses on lowered international rates by increasing other rates or raising the cost of mobile devices. “We’re proposing improved transparency on mobile roaming rates and mobile roaming usage,” Kramer said. By making rates and usage data more visible to consumers, service providers will begin negotiating cheaper rates in order to stay competitive, he said.
This conference is a milestone, but it’s not the end of discussion about international telecommunications. What happens during the conference will tune the trajectory of discussions about telecommunications and Internet governance.
In the event that ITRs are established that place taxes on the Internet or mandate data checkpoints that could lead to Internet censorship, “the people who would be the most alarmist about this would say that would balkanize the Internet, create a whole bunch of standards and approaches,” Kramer said. “You could create a model that didn’t honor free speech and democracy, you could create a model that didn’t honor economics — all those things would be violated.” It would ultimately create a fractured, uncooperative infrastructure. However unlikely, such a scenario is possible, Kramer said.
No one can say exactly how the conference will turn out, but WCIT’s most important contribution will be how it establishes precedents for future relations between nations. ¨