Hard News by Russell Brown


Singapore, I have a problem

There's always one in the room, and it happened to be me. After sitting through a CommunicAsia presentation from Australian lawyer Peter Waters, which was essentially him hating on Net Neutrality, scorning the bill to be presented to the US House and wildly misrepresenting the arguments in favour of some form of packet neutrality (chiefly, that it allows new internet content providers to compete on merit and innovation, not size of existing bankroll) I finally got to ask a couple of questions from the floor.

Surely, I put it to him, he was exaggerating: most proponents don't think every bit is sacred. Of course carriers should be able to guarantee quality of service if they sell a video-over-IP service to their customers; they can't rely on the best-effort internet for that.

What we don't want to do is let them create a two-tier internet service, where content from telcos, or their commercial partners, comes to us on the special internet and the little guy with a better idea gets second-class transport. In the world of discriminatory pricing, we'd miss out on YouTube and get some lame telco version instead.

Was there not a simple solution here? Yes, run any IP-based services you like. But unless you have packet neutrality, you can't call it the internet. We'll see what the consumer likes better.

I also took him up on his comments about peering. In New Zealand, I pointed out, the two major carriers had ceased open peering with anyone but each other, and basically broken the network. There were perverse routing decisions every day, and TVNZ had had to bring in Akamai to do national content distribution because it made more sense than paying the telcos for access to their customers.

He clearly did not, I suggested, act for many content providers. No, as it turned out, he didn't. He was Telstra Clear's lawyer in these very matters. Perhaps that was something he should have said at the start of his talk.

I would have liked to have asked some more questions: given his rationale -- telcos had to be allowed to gain enough revenue from their networks to permit new investment in capacity - what had the revenue outcome of de-peering been for TelstraClear? Did it lose or upset any major customers? Had revenue from new sales of circuits into its network covered the cost of say, every bit of data it had to haul back across the Pacific from New Zealand sites that couldn't afford to host in New Zealand, including large content providers like Radio New Zealand, which delivers to the Telecom and Telstra networks from a US mirror?

But the chairman had not yet heard enough of his own voice and there wasn't time for any more questions from anyone.

There was a part two of sorts when I heard an excellent presentation from Stuart Spiteri of Akamai the next day at Broadcast Asia. He told how he and his crew had done a little test the previous day: "racing" some data around Singapore. Oddly enough, he said, because the two big carriers, SingTel and StarHub, were so "competitive" - in other words, they won't peer sensibly - the fastest path between sites on either network a few kilometres apart was via the United States.

I asked him whether carriers' refusal to peer sensibly was a driver for Akamai's business and he said, well, this sort of thing happens all over the world. From the text provided for his presentation:

First of all, networks have little incentive to set up free peering arrangements, since there is no revenue generation opportunity in that type of arrangement, but there are considerable setup costs.

At the same time, none of the large networks is going to agree to pay another large network for peering, because from a traffic perspective, they would both benefit equally from such an arrangement. As a result, large networks end up not peering with each other very much and so the limited number of peering points between them end up as bottlenecks.

And such commercially-driven policies actually quite often have the effect of exposing carriers to data transport costs resulting from resulting from their action?

"Oh yes," said Spiteri. "That's why the telcos love us. It costs us very little, if anything, to be hosted in their data centres because we save them so much money."

Frankly a week at CommunicAsia has me not loving telcos. Hour after hour it was carriers blathering at each other, or being blathered at by consultants, about how content is king, and must be "compelling" and "exclusive" if consumers are to be wooed to new mobile and "quadruple play" IP services - without a single content person in the house. Not one.

Apart from Spiteri, the BBC's excellent Dr Chrichton Limbert (I've written him up for a Listener column), a useful briefing on social media by Joe Colgan of Spectrum Strategies, a talk from the CEO of Korea's mobile TV provider TU Media and purely technical presentations like that on spectrum management by Kordia's Ian Goodwin, the fare at the four separate, confusingly overlapping conferences here has been generally disappointing. As a frustrated audience member pointed out from the floor at the IPTV Forum, "this is all about you guys trying to defend entrenched positions."

I actively boycotted Friday's User-Generated Content forum, because it was so stupid. Check out the programme: a day on user content dominated by executives from Mediacorp, the monolithic company that owns, among other things, every single radio station in Singapore. The day was sponsored by Singapore's Media Development Authority, which is part of the same official system that makes Singapore's media the lamest in the region and bans satellite dishes. It would be a joke, if it were funny.

Conspicuously not invited: the Singapore's blogfather and creator of one of the best podcasts anywhere: Mr Brown. Look out for him in New Zealand in August, at the Bananas NZ Going Global conference and possibly elsewhere, and for coverage in Public Address Radio and The Listener. Top guy.

You may be deducing that I'm having a problem with Singapore. It's not like I'm not having a good time: the food and the shopping are great, and I had a top night on the turps with a member of the vast and shadowy Gracewood clan, but there's something about the place - where even creativity must be officially ordained - that really gives me the shits. There's too much authoritarian cruelty masquerading as a social contract here. The next time Mike Moore starts spouting off about how New Zealand should be much more like Singapore, could someone do me a favour and just slap him?

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