An Introduction to Net Neutrality

If you follow tech news at all you’ve seen a flurry of activity about network neutrality or “net neutrality.”  It’s a complex issue with some of the fiercest debate surrounding the issue of data discrimination.

The data discrimination portion of the net neutrality issue is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally and not subject to discrimination by Internet providers.  In other words, all Internet traffic should be treated the same and no data should be favored over any other data. 

Net neutrality advocates argue that customers paying for the same level of Internet access should be able to send and receive data at the same speeds.  Internet providers also shouldn’t discriminate against some sites, services, and types of traffic in favor of their own content or content of whoever is willing to pay more. 

Net neutrality has been the status quo since the creation of the Internet.  But Internet providers are urging a move away from net neutrality toward a tiered service and pricing model that would an Internet with “fast lanes” for those willing and able to pay for faster preferred service. 

Keep in mind that net neutrality is different than the idea of paying for Internet access.  We’re all used to paying some kind of fee to connect to the Internet.  We’ve been doing it for nearly two decades now. 

But having to pay extra to ensure non-discrimination by Internet providers?  That’s a whole new ballgame.
Data discrimination is one solution proposed by Internet providers to deal with the problem of limited bandwidth.  Bandwidth is a finite resource.  There is a limit to what we can send through a particular portion of the Internet at a particular time.

Let’s face it; customers demand a lot of bandwidth.  Every year there are new technologies, applications, and websites created that increase our appetite for more bandwidth.  From streaming movies and music, to smartphone data, to online gaming we have an insatiable demand for more bandwidth.

It takes time and money for our Internet providers to increase the bandwidth supply.  We’re impatient, so we complain about how awful our Internet service is.  But we rarely think about the complexities involved in moving our data through the Internet.  And when we’re provided with faster connections we’re sure to clog them up again. 

Since wired networks can have capacity problems it should come as no surprise that the bandwidth problem is even worse for wireless networks.  For the most part they were not built to handle broadband Internet access.  They simply can’t handle the same volumes of traffic that wired connections can. 

But wireless is where the rapid growth is, and the problem only gets worse with the introduction of every new tablet and smartphone.  

So beyond investments in new technologies and faster networks the industry has to explore other ideas to satisfy our insatiable demand.  One of the solutions they’re exploring is moving away from the principle of net neutrality and toward a tiered service and pricing model. 

We’ve already seen some efforts by Internet providers to control, slow, or block Internet traffic for a variety of reasons.  Some Internet providers have created data quotas for their customers or tiered pricing plans for different usages of bandwidth.  An Internet provider blocked text messages from an advocacy group related to the abortion debate.

One Internet provider slowed its customer’s access to peer-to-peer services, claiming such services were slowing down the network.  That’s not surprising; we’ve seen universities do the same thing with their networks when students brought them to a crawl through the use of Napster and BitTorrent.

It costs money to build and maintain all those servers, fiber optic cables, cell towers, and land lines.  And the Internet providers may be on to something with their tiered pricing idea.  Some customers are likely willing to pay more for super responsive Internet connections, or guarantees of uninterrupted video and music streaming.  Think about it.  Would you be willing to pay higher fees for the competitive advantage of having your stuff move through the Internet faster than your competition’s?

To support the moving away from net neutrality the Internet providers’ trade groups are mobilizing to influence the Federal government and fight the net neutrality advocates.

Even tech companies whose core business is not involved with providing Internet access find themselves having a stake in the net neutrality discussions, and are getting hit in the cross fire between net neutrality advocates and Internet providers.  These tech companies are generally the ones building the new products and apps that drive our consumption of bandwidth.

Not surprisingly, there’s a vocal group of net neutrality advocates.  These advocates want to ensure that Internet providers manage their networks only in ways that don’t discriminate against some sites, services, and types of traffic.

Advocates of net neutrality claim (among other things) that they are fighting to preserve Internet rights and freedoms and that net neutrality encourages competition and innovation.  Advocates don’t want to see a tiered Internet with first and second class tiers based on people’s ability to pay.  Such a tiered Internet rubs them wrong in the land of the free where people have come to view unimpeded Internet access as a right, not a privilege.  They expect an Internet that is free (but acknowledge the need for Internet access fees), open, and accessible by everyone.

While these advocates may not have the financial resources of the Internet providers they are generally more tech savvy and able to respond quickly through social media.  We’re seeing traditional protests at corporate headquarters, online petitions, and an incalculable number of blog postings.  Such efforts generally lead to bad publicity for Internet providers in the traditional media.  So far advocates’ efforts and bad publicity for Internet providers have been enough to stop or slow Internet providers’ data discrimination efforts. 

If you fall strongly on a particular side of net neutrality debate now is the time to make your voice heard.  Find out what your local Senator or Representative thinks of net neutrality—hopefully they’ve heard of it and don’t consider the Internet just to be a series of tubes with an unlimited data capacity.

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