Skype: Net Neutrality's Global Corporate Champion
Meet the small and very happy lobbying group at Skype, one of the loudest voices for net neutrality from within the high-tech industry (The photo above shows, from left: Stephen Collins, global senior director of regulatory affairs; Staci Pies, director of government and regulatory affairs; Christopher Libertelli, senior director of regulatory affairs, Americas). These lobbyists are taking their crusade across the globe.
Stephen Collins, Skype's head of global regulatory affairs, and his staff of four, claimed victory Monday when FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski moved to establish rules that ensure users get access to whatever content and services they want on the Web, regardless of platform.
Collins' team has been fighting multiple and often similar battles for Internet access rules outside the U.S., zig-zagging across continents to meet with regulators from Brazil to Germany to the United Arab Emirates. Their job just got a easier, they say, after the FCC's move.
"This puts the FCC at the forefront of global Internet policy," Collins said. "It was a bold statement that could have ripple effects across the globe."
Some nations like Norway and Japan already have rules in place that are similar to those proposed by Genachowski. But many others have dismissed such policies, including several European nations and emerging nations where telecommunications companies are either controlled by or closely connected to the government, Collins said.
But regulators -- particularly European and American tech policy makers -- watch each other closely, sometime sharing information as seen with the competition bureau of the European Commission and antitrust authoritites at the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department.
In nearly every country, the debate over net neutrality always boils down to the same basic themes, Skype said. Traditional phone and cable companies of those nations have seen their businesses shift from providing voice and video to providing access to the Web. The companies that make content and services for the Web--like Skype, Google, and Yahoo in the U.S.--are challenging the traditional business models of the network service operators amid the seismic shifts in the technology landscape.
"The great majority of companies that operate our nation's broadband pipes rely upon revenue from selling phone service, cable TV subscriptions, or both. These services increasingly compete with voice and video products provided over the Internet. The net result is that broadband providers' rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers in competition and choice," Genachowski explained in his speech Monday, announcing his proposal for new rules.
A company like Skype offers the voice and video conferencing services - part of the bread and butter of traditional network operators -- over the Web for free or cheap. Today, Skype says it is blocked on some wireless networks and therefore is fighting along with companies like Google for rules that would require operators to let them in.
The carriers argue against rules that govern what they can and can't control on their networks. They say that they need to be able to manage traffic to prevent congestion that would slow access for users.
Skype, founded in 2003 in the tiny European nation Estonia, never would have predicted its role as global lobbyist for net neutrality.
But soon after it was launched, regulators in the U.S. and Europe began questioning the role of voice over Internet service providers in telecom policy. That's when the company realized it was smack in the middle of a seismic shift in the high-tech landscape.
"We started as a software company but we didn't realize how game changing our technology would be," said Libertelli, who heads government relations for the Americas, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Latin America.
So in 2005, Skype hired Collins, a former diplomat and political science professor in the U.K. The company also assembled a small staff to work with Collins, including Christopher Libertelli, who served as senior legal advisor for former FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Next came staffers to handle lobbying for U.S. state regulations and others for Asia and Europe.
Collins and Libertelli saw that the tension between Web service companies and network operators was heating up. In 2005, carrier Madison River blocked Internet voice service Vonage on its networks. In 2006, a push in Europe to adopt guidelines for how internet carriers could operate their networks was "met with hostility," Collins said.
So in 2007, Libertelli filed a petition to the FCC seeking to apply the same rules for telephone lines --- that any device and technology can be attached to phone networks - to wireless networks. The petition was pushed aside by former FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who announced that he wouldn't take it up at a wireless trade group conference in 2008.
The petition is still pending and it caught the attention of public interest groups that have partnered with Libertelli to push the new FCC chair to adopt net neutrality laws.
Collins said regulators around the world are talking about the FCC move. Skype's staffer in Brussels said there was already discussion of AT&T's push to keep wireless networks out of any new policy.
"This sets the tone and conversation going forward," Collins said.
September 24, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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