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Cable Technology Feature Article

August 23, 2010

Akamai Acquisition? Isn't Net Neutrality a Risk?

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

Akamai (News - Alert) Technologies may be acquired, Bloomberg reports. The speculation is that likely buyers include telcos or perhaps a cable company. It isn’t hard to come up with a rationale, and the current round of network neutrality discussions might be playing a part in the new thinking.

Content delivery networks have become a fairly-standard product offering, or a desired capability, for most long-haul capacity providers. Think of it as a way to add value to the delivery of bits, and raise prices and profit margins for long-haul capacity services.

One might think that the unsettled state of network neutrality discussions creates some additional risk. That might be true, but the risk might be quite small. For starters, nobody has suggested that Akamai’s business somehow violates any bit prioritization rules being discussed.

Those rules are seen as limiting the ability of an access provider, not application providers or long-haul providers. Though access providers, some argue, should be prohibited from prioritizing bits, there has been no suggestion at all that application providers do not themselves have the right to do so. 

That is the service Akamai provides, and you would not find evidence that policy advocates believe Akamai, or content delivery networks, are at issue in the current network neutrality discussions. The point is that Akamai sells only to content, media and other companies that essentially want to improve user experience by caching content closer to where the users are. 

Though there are many differing conceptions of whether net neutrality is a good, or bad idea, nobody has suggested Akamai should be outlawed. For starters, Akamai does not provide end-user services. Its customers are other enterprises. It is, in other words, a classic private managed service offered to business customers only, not consumers. 

Even the strongest net neutrality supporters have not suggested enterprise or business class services should be subject to the same rules that consumer access services might be subjected to.

In fact, the Google (News - Alert)-Verizon agreement exempts such managed services on the fixed access network. Consumer Internet access would continue to be a “best effort” service with no bit priorities at all.

But Google points out that the right to do so would remain with application providers, who could decide themselves to apply their own priorities, at their own discretion. In that framework, even access prioritization would be possible, but it would be a feature of a particular application, and controlled exclusively by the application provider. 

When observers talk about applying common carrier regulation to access service providers, those rules do not apply to applications, which would remain unregulated data services, as they always have been. In that case, Akamai is doubly protected. Akamai is a strict business-to-business service available to business customers, and to the extent bit prioritization ever happens, it would be allowable for app providers, at their discretion. 

A common sense reading of the Google-Verizon (News - Alert) agreement, for example, would note that the framework allows Verizon to create managed services that are outside the realm of “Internet access.” Verizon itself could not create an end-to-end Internet services with quality of service guarantees, but there is nothing to prevent an application provider from doing so.

Sure, there is some risk of creeping regulation of historically-unregulated data services. But not all services and applications that run over IP networks are “Internet” or “Internet access” services. There are all sorts of private networks that use the same physical assets. 

In that case, a telco or cable company buying Akamai would most likely have little to fear from any proposed net neutrality rules applying to “Internet access services.”

Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Erin Harrison