By now, you’ve probably heard the term “Net Neutrality” banded about on the Internet. Perhaps you wonder what it means. Perhaps you’ve been watching certain biased news networks and have a warped understanding of the term. In either case, I’d like to try and provide a human-readable explanation of what the positions are on Net Neutrality.
I think the first thing I need to describe is a little bit of how the Internet actually works. When you type in an address in your web browser, you are not connecting directly to that web server. Instead, what happens is that your request travels through intermediaries. First it goes to your Internet service provider that you bought your connection from (e.g. Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, NetZero, etc.). From there, it’s transmitted through several high-bandwidth providers, sometimes owned by the same company, sometimes another company, until it arrives finally at the server you wanted to talk to. We’ll call these middle hops (including your ISP, and the backbones that they talk to) “intermediaries”. I will use several of these companies as examples below, however they are only hypothetical examples and should not be misconstrued as an endorsement or accusation of misconduct by any particular entity.
Next, lets describe bandwidth a little bit. The classic example is to compare it to modern running-water plumbing. Bandwidth in this case could be described by the diameter of the water pipe. The wider the pipe, the more water than can flow through it each minute. Similar to pipes as well, you have a problem when the amount of water (data) you try to send through the pipe (Internet connection) is greater than its ability to pass it through.
Let’s try and define the term “Net Neutrality”. What does it mean, and how does it affect you?
Net Neutrality is a proposal that the Internet needs to be legislated to guarantee that the intermediaries between you and the server you’re trying to talk to cannot make deals to disallow access to certain services. For example, lets say that your Internet service provider is Comcast. Comcast owns NBC/Universal, which provides a website for streaming the latest episodes of its television programs. They have other competitors in the television market, so they decide that anyone using their communication lines can only connect at full speed to nbc.com, and that sites like hulu.com, cw.com and cbs.com are going to be limited to 10% speed so that they don’t use up the available bandwidth that Comcast wants to be used for nbc.com. As mentioned above, Comcast has a certain amount of bandwidth that it can take advantage of. As more and more people get on the Internet with an assortment of devices (computers, smartphones, Internet-enabled televisions, etc.), there is an increased demand on Comcast’s bandwidth.
From Comcast’s perspective, it would now have two choices:
- Increase its bandwidth. This is very expensive, as it involves expending millions of dollars on new equipment
- Find ways to divide the bandwidth it already has
The second option is where we start to get into Net Neutrality territory. In the example above, I provided the example that, in situations where the available bandwidth is at its limit, Comcast might choose to restrict the passage of data destined for one of its competitors, so that it could reserve a larger part of its available bandwidth for its own services. This is not necessarily a particularly good example, because situations like this might lead to antitrust lawsuits.
There is, however, another case that is the crux of the Net Neutrality argument. It is essentially this: Should Comcast be allowed to sell different tiers of service to different customers. For example, can hulu.com come to Comcast and offer to pay double the going rate for traffic through its network, and be granted a larger percentage of the available pipe? This is the source of the largest piece of confusion in the Net Neutrality debate. Those who do not understand the technologies behind the Internet see this discussion as a free market situation. In other words, if a customer of Comcast can afford to pay more for higher quality of service, then they should be allowed to do so.
However, think back to the plumbing explanation. Comcast is not building brand-new infrastructure to support these new higher-paying clients. They are merely guaranteeing them a higher percentage of the available bandwidth pass-through. This cannot happen without lowering the available bandwidth for those services that cannot afford the higher tier. Furthermore, if large numbers of clients with deep pockets pay for the privilege of higher bandwidth, they are further reducing the available bandwidth for the lower-paying customers.
In other words, no real product is gained by paying for the new service. It is merely redistributed (and how’s that for socialism, guys?). At the same time, it reduces the ability of smaller players from being able to deliver new, disruptive technologies and products.
Where would the world be if companies like Google and Apple had not been able to do business on the Internet because Yahoo and Microsoft were the big players and owned all of the bandwidth? Without a guarantee of Net Neutrality, the next great invention may never see the light of day because there will be no way to deliver it into the hands of customers.
The guarantee of Net Neutrality is that all bandwidth through an intermediary must be treated with the same priority as any other. There should be no artificial slowing of any customer’s data simply because another customer has deeper pockets.
Many of the larger telecommunications providers argue that it’s their right as the owner and maintainer of the communication lines to do with them as they please. There is certainly a point to be made from this, but at this point, the economy of the United States and the world is at stake if the fundamental operation of the Internet changes.
I hope I’ve explained this issue in a way that is easy to understand. If so, please write your local legislators and tell them that you support Net Neutrality for the rights of consumers and small business.