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Net Neutrality: Why Should Enterprise Devs Care?

I stopped by the Googleplex on Friday to check out the MoveOn.org-sponsored protest of the proposed Google-Verizon network neutrality framework. About a hundred people showed up, by my very rough count, with "Save the Internet" and "Don't Be Evil" signs. (I'm betting that more than a few people at Google are getting sick of the company's slogan about now.) MoveOn delivered a petition signed by more than 300,000 people opposed to the framework, which the group characterized as a bid to "give giant corporations control of the Internet." MoveOn published some nice pix of the event on its website.Very civil demonstration.

It's not just the liberal-leaning MoveOn that opposes the Google-Verizon plan. The framework for net neutrality outlined by the two companies has come under widespread criticism. Earlier today, four House Democrats weighed in, charging that the plan is too "industry-centered." Reps. Edward Markey, Anna Eshoo, Mike Doyle, and Jay Inslee wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski calling for "a resolution of the current open proceedings at the commission to ensure the maintenance of an open Internet."

The joint proposal is available on Google's Public Policy blog, so I won't go into specifics here. And the blogosphere, of course, is humming with commentary. Instead, let's talk about why enterprise software developers, in particular, should care about making sure users can access the Internet free of service-provider-imposed restrictions. As usual, I asked around and found some industry watchers who've given this question some thought.

"At first glance, the proposal seems admirable," said Ovum senior analyst Tony Baer. "Preserve net neutrality, except in the wireless space where bandwidth is dear. The problem is that the exceptions, which for now are defined loosely as innovative and public service uses, are not exactly ironclad guarantees that blatantly commercial uses from well-heeled originators will not literally dominate the airwaves."

Baer, who blogs via the OnStrategies Perspectives Web site, is rather pessimistic about the future of net neutrality, especially in the mobile space. He pointed to the "chokehold" the carries maintain on the types of devices supported by their networks.

"As long as carriers remain the power brokers, net neutrality will remain an unrealized dream in North America," Baer said.

Al Hilwa, Seattle-based Program Director in the Applications Development Software group of IDC, sees the Google-Verizon proposal as a promotion of the status quo: a relatively open and lightly-controlled wired Internet, and a very restricted and carrier-controlled wireless Internet.

"You can argue both sides in terms of the state of the current wireless network and the level of resources it needs to be evolved to carry the types of payloads we are hoping to one day run on it," Hilwa told me, "but one thing is clear: developers will have to understand that their wired and wireless worlds will look very different for a long time to come. While applications targeting broadly available platforms can run anywhere on the wired networks as long as they adhere to the right standards, they can only run on the wireless network courtesy of a chain of custodians, such as platform vendors, device makers, carriers and anyone who sits in between to collect a penny. This means that the era of write-once-run-everywhere will give way to write many times and run where you are permitted."

A list of Hilwa's IDC papers is available here.

Austin, Texas-based Michael Coté, industry analyst at RedMonk, warned that developers shouldn't be lulled into complacency on this issue by its seeming consumer-focus.

"At the moment, most of the worry is on the consumer end, but enterprises are relying on consumer-oriented services more and more," Coté said. "Public cloud computing is served over the Internet, after all. If enterprise developers are starting to use more services, and even infrastructure over the Internet, then net neutrality certainly has the potential to affect them. The same would hold true for those doing more mobile-based development, where developers are already dependent on carriers. If enterprise developers were relying on an 'open' network, vs. one where you had to pay for more for better service, then they'd need to start considering the cost and reliability."

On the other hand, providing enterprises with the option of paying for better service might actually be attractive for some of their applications.

"That said, if the outbound marketing at enterprises is relying on unfettered access to their customers, then there is call here to pay attention to net neutrality discussions," he added. "Just like media companies are worried that telcos and other carriers would 'tax' them for use or do more dastardly things, if outbound marketing and comms are trying to do things over the public Internet, they'll need to make sure that they can reach their end-users without paying (or having their end users pay) some kind of fee for better performance and access."

If you haven't, you should check out Coté's blog, "People Over Process."

Dana Gardner, president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions worries that the little guys might be missing the importance of this debate.

"Large enterprises are no strangers to net neutrality issues," Gardner said. "Large companies for decades have been paying WAN, private network and Internet fees based on provider formulas that takes the size and types of traffic into account. In this regard they have never had 'net neutrality.'"

But this may be something that small to medium businesses have not yet thought through. SMBs may have benefited from flatter consumer-oriented Internet connections and fee structures without realizing it. New network usage structures could affect how they reach out to their customers via the Internet, as well as how they deliver services to their employees via the Internet.

"So it certainly behooves companies to follow closely how these 'net neutrality' issues play out," Gardner said, "and to consider how the networks are disintermediating them and their customers. You can be sure that the network providers are not looking to reduce the total fees, and that affects the entire ecosystem of online providers and users."

Gardner's "BriefingsDirect" blog is a must read.

Now I'd like to hear what you think. Why should enterprise software developers care about net neutrality? What should their position be? Should they get involved? How?

Posted by John K. Waters on August 16, 2010