Why you should care about net neutrality

Why you should care about net neutrality

Summary: Debate that could decide the development of the internet is crossing from the US to the UK

TOPICS: Tech Industry
Despite being guaranteed to raise blood pressures in the US, the network neutrality debate has been slow to migrate across the Atlantic.

At its heart, the question is this: are all bits created equal? One camp, which includes such founding fathers of the internet as Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, argues that they are, and maintains that no content provider's traffic should be given priority over that of another. The advocates claim network providers should not prevent certain types of applications from running over the network, or ban specific devices from trying to connect to it. ISPs should also not favour traffic from one online service or content supplier over another as this may enable a larger player with deeper pockets to become dominant, even if its service is inferior in quality.

The rival lobby insists that net neutrality has never existed anyway and its introduction would pose a danger to the stability of the net's infrastructure. Network operators such as AT&T and BellSouth have been raising the spectre of tiered internet services. Although few details have been forthcoming so far, the proposition mooted is that online content and service providers should pay a tariff to ensure their traffic is given priority over that of non-paying suppliers.

Why is there such a fuss over net neutrality in the US but not in the UK?
Broadband provision is a vastly different market in the States. Most areas in the UK are serviced by many ISPs, creating wide consumer choice. In the US, many areas have a more limited choice, due to mergers between providers and what has been termed a "duopoly" between cable and DSL, so it is harder for a customer to leave his or her ISP if they don't like its policies. The battle over net neutrality is being fought on many levels, from the US Congress down to individual municipalities and the blogosphere.

So why is it becoming an issue here?
Because of the evolving nature of the traffic going over the internet. The rise of peer-to-peer (P2P) downloading is a major factor, especially as enormous, high-definition movie files become available to share, but the imminent launch of internet-based TV (IPTV) by companies such as the BBC also has the potential to put strain on networks.

This has prompted some in the industry to argue that, if service providers are not allowed to give some types of content priority over others, many users of the internet will end up experiencing a poor quality of service. Some even claim that the introduction of net neutrality would render time-sensitive applications like VoIP and home health monitoring systems unreliable.

What is more, say anti-neutrality advocates, prioritisation or "traffic-shaping" is already the way things get done, resulting in a variety of ISP business models. Net neutrality legislation, they suggest, would stop an ISP from selling different connection speeds at different prices, or advertising itself as being especially suited to gaming because it prioritises the sort of data that gamers use.

What does the pro-neutrality lobby argue?
Those in favour of net neutrality say that, without its introduction in legislation, service providers could start charging content providers like Google for the privilege of having their traffic prioritised. The content providers argue that they (and their users) already pay for bandwidth and further levies would be unjustified and anti-competitive, while those taking a broader view say that the egalitarian nature of the internet itself would be further threatened by corporate interests.

Of particular concern to the pro-neutrality camp is the idea that large service providers (think BT for a UK example), who are increasingly offering their own content, could legally start degrading users' experience of non-affiliated content in favour of what they have to sell.

Is there any chance of net neutrality legislation being introduced in the UK?
As with so many things, the power over this issue rests with the European Commission, which has not explicitly weighed into the debate. It has, however, carried out a consultation on online content asking, among other things, what respondents' views were on the subject of net neutrality. The resulting communication is only expected this July, but the question's inclusion has drawn protest from some in the broadband provision industry. Government and industry were clearly rattled enough to convene a Westminster e-forum on the subject last week.

What do Ofcom and the government say?
Neither parties seem convinced of a need for new legislation. Government representatives were taking notes at the Westminster e-forum and, at the close of the debate, appeared to suggest that there was nothing wrong with the status quo. As for Ofcom, the regulator says it already has sufficient powers to crack down on an ISP if it believes the provider is behaving anti-competitively.

Is there another way to "unblock" the internet should the need arise?
Some argue that the widespread rollout of fibre, which has much higher bandwidth capacity than copper, would be a solution. While core carrier networks are capable of handling the traffic generated by P2P and IPTV, the so-called "last mile" between those networks and people's homes or businesses in the UK is still based on copper, and it is in that final stretch where any potential blockage would appear.

In mainland Europe, a motley assortment of ISPs, municipalities and utility companies have taken the initiative, but no large-scale UK fibre deployment is on the cards yet.

Topic: Tech Industry

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • Two separate arguments

    So those in favour of net neutrality say that "ISPs should ... not favour traffic from one online service or content supplier over another"

    Those against say "if service providers are not allowed to give some types of content priority over others, many users of the internet will end up experiencing a poor quality of service."

    Folks, these are two completely separate arguments.

    The main concern of those in favour of net neutrality is the net should not discriminate between network traffic on the basis of who it came from or who it is going to, or what company or organisation supplied the end-point software.

    But those who are against net neutrality (say they) want to be able to discriminate between network traffic of different kinds (e.g. gaming, peer-to-peer file sharing, VOIP, etc).

    Isn't it clear that these two things are perfectly compatible?

    It is quite acceptable to prioritise real-time traffic such as streaming video or VOIP over non-realtime traffic such as peer-to-peer file sharing or email.

    What would be unacceptable would be to discriminate between streaming video from Google, and streaming video from a small independent organisation.

    My biggest concern is that those against net neutrality are deliberately conflating the two issues to try to dupe people into believing that you can't have prioritisation of certain types of traffic without allowing discrimination based on the provider too.
  • Different but intrinsically linked

    Yes, they are two separate issues - to an extent.

    Perhaps the problem lies in the absolutism offered by elements of both camps, which does make the two scenarios incompatible. However, the reality is that, without some kind of (probably limited) net neutrality provision, ISPs might well be able to do the nasty things that the net neutrality advocates claim they will do - whether or not the regulators claim otherwise.

    On the other hand, pure net neutrality could stuff things up the way the ISPs claim. There's a middle ground to be found here. The question is whether it will be found as a reaction to events, or by predicting them intelligently.
    David Meyer
  • Wy not let the customer decide?

    The article says that the bottleneck would be the last mile. So it should be quite easy to let the customer decide what kind of content they want to have priorised. For me it would be VoIP, for others it would be gaming. And if a gamer lives next door to a voiper they would still be better off as large e-mail attachments would be put on hold for both of them.
  • Types of traffic

    But gaming frequently utilises VoIP inside the game. See, it's not that easy to separate different types of traffic, even on the network side, in this age of "mash-ups".

    Also, a system whereby customers individually choose what they want prioritised would be tremendously tricky and expensive for operators to run. The answer, possibly, might have to just be investment in upgrading that last mile. After all, it's not like the traffic is going to go down!
    David Meyer
  • whats wrong with things as they're?

    The way i see it, ISPs already can market themselves as having the fastest connection speeds etc.. if they wish to upgrade the infrastructure i.e. upgrade to fibre optic, then they should hope that the customer will reward them by switching to "the faster service" for more money, its what we did switching from dail-up to broadband.
    Personally, most of the sites i view are madeup of text mainly, they load in a flash, what more do i need? Apart from Youtube, i don't really care for IPTV, not until they have something worth watching, even then, i should be allowed to decide whether my connection is too slow..
    I hope i'll never see the day my favourite sites are slowed down just because they havent paid the ISP.