I may still be neutral (undecided not uncaring) about the Balloon Track development. But I am decidedly not neutral about Network Neutrality. I think it is crucial to the survival of the Internet as we have come to know it. What is Network Neutrality? Start with this article from the The Nation entitled The End of the Internet? by Jeff Chester which explains how the owners of major data lines are planning to offer a multi-tiered Internet, providing better service for those willing and able to pay.
The growing monopoly over the data lines that carriers our Internet traffic makes this threat quite feasible. The NY Times is reporting that AT&T (formerly SBC) is about to buy BellSouth. The Times further suggests this purchase will force Verizon to absorb Qwest. The consolidation of the telecommunications industry continues.
This news makes it clear that the network we all use and pay for in access fees will be owned by a small handful of corporations. And this makes the issue of network neutrality increasingly important. Steven Levy of Newsweek provides a good summary of the issue. Basically the owners of the big data pipes we all use to get information from place to place, are proposing to create a two-tiered Internet, charging fees for better data delivery. This means big business, which could afford to pay these fees would have a leg up on smaller business. The idea of a two-tiered Internet flies in the face of what has made the network such a powerful force for social and economic change and innovation. That is that the data delivery system is open and equally available to everyone, large or small, corporations or individuals. The level playing field allows everyone to compete equally.
This is a crucial issue for us in Humboldt County. Very few of us would be able to pay the extra fees that allow our information to be delivered at the same speed and efficiency of say ABC/Disney. Our videos and sound files suddenly have less value. Our communications over VoIP would be degraded in comparision to large corporate clients able to pay the higher tarriffs.
The carriers all claim that unpaid traffic won’t be degraded, only that premium service will be given to paid traffic. However, already there are rumours that carriers are experimenting with throttling certain kinds of traffic. The Humboldt Linux Users Group mailing list recently had a lively thread on whether Cox was throttling access to Peer to Peer (P2P) networks. According to an intrepid investigator on the list it appears they are. And there are now reports that Comcast may be degrading the service of Vonage, a voice over IP phone company. This means subscribers to Comcast’s broadband service who also use Vonage over that connection may be getting poor data transfers on purpose. Comcast would like to discourage use of VoIP because of the amount of bandwidth it takes up. They may be planning to start their own VoIP service which would be charged at a higher rate than Vonage’s. Of course, it’s difficult to confirm any of this as Comcast and Cox aren’t publicizing the practice. This article from The Register explains how all this works and is working. However, with these companies having absolute and unregulated control over the data lines, and little choice in carriers in most regions for end users, what power would we have?
This whole issue is starting to get some notice by Congress. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has introduced a bill to prevent service providers from charging higher fees for preferential treatment. But the article seems to imply this particular bill will get little traction. And while it does address the two-tiered Internet issue, it does not address the obverse issue of degrading and throttling existing services by major carriers.
The major carriers feel they have the right to control and charge whatever they want for traffic that passes over their infrastructure because they invested a lot of money to build it. They own it, so they can do whatever they want. That arguement carries some weight, especially when the alternative might be more regulation by the government. However, the carriers received a lot tax incentives to build the network and right of ways in communities to deploy services. In addition, the Internet has become as essential to commerce and communication as the highway system is to travel and commerce.
This is not a easy problem to solve. But it is a crucial one.