Getting a grip on Net neutrality

The battle lines are drawn, and the two sides are far apart

One of the greatest debates over the future of the Internet has been building for the past year. The debate over what is called Net neutrality has generated more heat than light, with those on both sides issuing near-apocalyptic predictions about the consequences if their side doesn't prevail.

Proponents of a Net neutrality law argue that it is needed in order to protect consumers, promote competition, maintain Internet innovation and prevent Internet service providers from blocking access to important services. Opponents say that it would stifle innovation, prevent providers from introducing new services, cut down on consumer choices and lead to the degradation of the Internet.

In this article, we'll take a look at what Net neutrality means, hear from those on both sides of the issue and examine its impact on the future of the Internet and networking.

What is Net neutrality?

Net neutrality is generally accepted to mean that certain rules should be applied to Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated the same, regardless of where it originates or what content it carries. Net neutrality would ensure that these companies could not block or degrade certain services, such as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls. It would guarantee that Internet service providers and telecommunications companies could not favor one site over another for any reason.

For example, they could not let users access Google Inc.'s Web site at a higher bandwidth or with a higher quality of service (QoS) than they can access the site of Yahoo Inc. because Google pays the providers extra fees. And providers could not block sites because those sites compete with the provider or because the provider doesn't agree with the political viewpoint of the sites.

Net neutrality, however, would allow providers to offer different tiers of services to their subscribers. So, for example, they could sell several levels of offerings to consumers, charging more for higher-bandwidth services.

What the opponents say

Leading the charge against Net neutrality have been cable and telecommunications companies, including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., BellSouth Corp. and others. Their argument is simple: In order to provide better and innovative Internet services, such as guaranteed delivery of high-quality video streams, they need to be able to charge extra for it.

Bill McCloskey, director of media relations at BellSouth, explained, "What we're talking about is giving our customers choices. For example, if they want to use [a VoIP service] like Skype or Vonage and be guaranteed that the voice quality won't break up, they might want to pay extra for that. And Google might want to pay to make sure that its video service is transmitted in an uninterrupted flow."

McCloskey noted that high-bandwidth applications and uses are putting severe strains on the Internet and that some people might want to pay for quality of service to guarantee that their connections are not degraded by the actions of others.

"If you want to watch the Super Bowl, you don't want someone downloading a piece of music to interrupt your stream so that your high-definition video is so pixellated you can't watch it," he said.

To provide those kinds of services, he said, providers need to be able to charge for them so that they can build out their infrastructure and bandwidth.

"We want to build a bigger, faster, better Internet," McCloskey said. "The cable companies and telecommunications companies want their customers to have the best service possible and don't want the government telling them what they can and can't offer."

McCloskey added that Net neutrality guidelines are not needed because providers will not degrade or block existing services.

"We believe that no one should block or degrade access to any legal site or service on the Internet, and we've pledged not to block or degrade," he said.

It's not only Internet service providers that warn against Net neutrality. Those who favor the free market in general are opponents as well.

James L. Gattuso, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is also an opponent of Net neutrality.

"Network neutrality is unnecessary and counterproductive," Gattuso said. "The Internet is about change and is dynamic, and that's a good thing. Those who favor network neutrality will freeze the Internet into an outdated model, subject to review by government bureaucrats."

He said the free market should determine the future of the Internet, not legislation. If providers are prohibited from charging extra for new services, he said, "There will be a loss of incentives to expand their networks, and there will be capacity shortages and congestion." In addition, Gattuso said, it will lead to less customer choice, because "there will be no incentive for new companies to enter the Internet access business."

What the proponents argue

On the other side of the issue is a coalition favoring Net neutrality that includes consumer groups, technology companies such as Google and Microsoft Corp., financial services firms and a wide spectrum of political groups, ranging from on the left to the Christian Coalition on the right. Its proponents also include the so-called father of the Internet Vinton Cerf, who is currently employed by Google.

Their arguments are the opposites of those who oppose Net neutrality in almost every way. They warn that without Net neutrality, providers will be able to block services that compete with them, such as VoIP or video services. They claim that providers could purposely degrade or block access to Web sites that don't pay them extra fees. They claim that innovation will be stifled because start-ups will be unable to afford to pay extra fees to give them adequate bandwidth, while well-established companies will be able to do so. Finally, they worry that without Net neutrality, Internet service providers would be able to block access to sites whose politics they disagree with.

Craig Aaron, communications director for the pro-Net neutrality group Free Press, explained, "Network neutrality is a principle that ensures a free and open Internet for democratic participation, innovation and the free expression of ideas. We've benefited economically as a society by having a free and open Internet. Without Net neutrality, it's no longer the Internet -- it's more like cable TV, where your choices are limited by the company providing you with services."

He claimed that without Net neutrality, innovation will be stifled and providers "will create a tiered Internet, with a fast lane for its own products and services and those of its partners, and a slow lane for everyone else."

Aaron also warned that innovation will be stifled because "the history of the Internet shows that innovation always occurs at the edges," by small companies with small budgets. With a tiered Internet, that will no longer be possible, because small companies won't be able to afford to pay providers for extra services.

In addition, he said that there is inadequate competition among broadband providers and that Internet service providers could collude with one another to charge higher fees.

"Consumers need to be protected because 98% of the country is a monopoly or duopoly," Aaron said. "People have a choice of only one or two providers. Rules need to be made so that those who control the wires can't abuse their powers."

Web sites and financial services firms said they will get squeezed by Internet service providers and will be forced to pay substantial amounts of money to multiple providers if they want visitors to their site to get adequate bandwidth. They also said that they already pay fees to providers for the bandwidth they use and that they would now be forced to pay extra.

Political groups across the spectrum worry that without Net neutrality, Internet service providers could block access to those sites they don't agree with politically. They also say that they couldn't afford to pay providers for extra bandwidth, and that because of that, they will have a difficult time getting their viewpoints heard.

Michele Combs, director of communications at the Christian Coalition, said, "We're worried that the Internet is about to be divided into two tracks, the fast track and the slow track, and that groups that can't afford it will be stuck on the slow track."

She noted that the Christian Coalition is a grass-roots organization with chapters in every state. Those chapters do not have a great deal of money, and Combs said she fears they won't be able to pay for higher bandwidth, "and consumers won't end up going to our sites."

Why now?

The Internet has been around in one form or another for decades. So why the debate about Net neutrality now? Net neutrality is nothing new; in fact, it has generally been the accepted way that the Internet has functioned for as long as there has been an Internet. But about a year ago, things changed.

Free Press' Aaron said that a decision a year ago by the Federal Communications Commission opened the door to the changes currently being debated because it in essence defined Internet access as an information service rather than a telecommunications service. That meant that restrictions on telecommunications providers would no longer apply to Internet service providers. So, for example, the ruling meant that telephone companies no longer had to share their wires with competitors.

More important, though, was that before the ruling, a set of regulations governed Internet access, including that services could not be blocked. The FCC eased those regulations but put a year-long moratorium on Internet service providers making any changes. That moratorium will end this summer.

At the same time, Congress has been in the midst of rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1999. Proponents have been trying to get language into the law that guarantees Net neutrality, and opponents have been fighting it. At the moment, opponents have the upper hand, and the language isn't in the bill. But there's still a long fight ahead.

The bottom line

Mostly, the debate over Net neutrality focuses on consumers and small businesses and generally will not affect enterprise networks to nearly the same degree. That's because some businesses are already paying for tiered services of some sort.

But there are potential consequences. Any business that relies on a public Web site for taking orders from the public or communicating with customers may be affected because, depending on the outcome of the debate, the business may want to pay extra for additional services and bandwidth.

In addition, companies moving to VoIP might consider paying extra for quality of service as their calls go over the public Internet, if Net neutrality is not guaranteed.

For the moment, though, the battle is still being fought in Congress, and all most people can do is sit and wait to see what the next generation of the Internet will look like.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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