A telecom muder/suicide pact

Australia has a right to be ticked off. The country can’t get anyone to help it pay for its international Internet connections-Australian ISPs have to pay the full cost themselves. This is quite unlike the telephone world, in which Australian service providers only have to pay for half of each international link. But what the country has gotten an ITU study group to do to fix the problem seems to be a relatively efficient way to commit technological suicide.

Early this year, Australia asked the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector study group 3 (SG3) to look at the problem of what that country sees as an imbalance in who pays for international Internet links. Specifically, the country requested that “the development of charging, accounting and settlement principles for services using the Internet Protocol be included in SG3’s work program for 2001 to 2004.”

But apparently SG3 decided that the problem was a simple one and, after a single meeting, proposed a recommendation that was voted on during the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly at the end of September in Montreal. The proposal is deceptively simple.

“Noting the rapid growth of the Internet and Internet-based international services: It is recommended that administrations negotiate and agree to bilateral commercial arrangements applying to direct international Internet connections whereby each administration will be compensated for the costs that it incurs in carrying traffic that is generated by the other administration,” the proposal says.

Basically, this means if you own an international Internet link, then you can demand that anyone who generates traffic that traverses your link must pay you for transporting the traffic. Actually, the proposal says the source ISP, not the original source, must pay.

Technically, this would be enough of a challenge. You would have to monitor the source addresses of all the traffic on your link and determine which of 5,000 ISPs to send a bill to and figure out how to send a bill to that mom and pop ISP in Lithuania. But generally the source of Internet traffic is not the same as who requested the information. So if I wanted to watch Internet coverage of the Olympics, you would send a bill to some Australian ISP. Since I assume the source ISP would pass on the bill, why, under this regime, would anyone let their traffic go over your link, unless it’s something of high value such as pornography?

The inescapable result of any link owner attempting to impose such a regulation would be that the country on the end of the link would be cut off from most Internet content. This seems a sure way to marginalize that country. Australia is pushing this proposal. I guess the country sees an advantage to being marginalized.

The U.S. government, and a number of other countries’ governments, has strongly opposed this attempt to impose dying telephone-based regulations on the Internet. For the sake of Australia and other countries like it, I hope the opposition is successful in killing the proposal.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.