Network Neutrality and What it Means for Us
The crux of the controversy over network neutrality is really a power struggle between the providers of the networks, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), that provide consumers access to the Internet, and the providers of Web sites, services and content ("Web content"), that we all want to access.
The vast majority of ISPs today adhere to the principles of "end-to-end" neutrality, which basically states that networks should confine themselves to transmitting general packets without worrying about its contents. This neutrality principle is one of the reasons for the Internet's incredible growth and its power to transform existing business models and create innovative new ones.
It means that ISPs must provide equal access to all the content on the Internet being accessed by users. Network neutrality does not mean that ISPs cannot charge users more for faster service, or for using more than the allowed bandwidth of its access plans. It has nothing to do with broadband pricing or metering whatsoever.
Three Perspectives to Network Neutrality.
- Consumers. Consumers are the ones who pay the ISP bill and generate the revenues for the big ISPs. Consumers want the freedom to access whatever lawful online content they desire. Just for clarification, there is nothing in the proposed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations that suggests that consumers who use lots and lots of bandwidth shouldn't pay more.
- ISPs. They have spent billions to build out the networks that deliver all this content to consumers. Some of the ISPs suggest that companies like Skype or Netflix are getting a free ride on their networks. I couldn't disagree more. The consumer is the customer of the ISP, not the Web site, application, or content producer.
- Web Content Producers. For this group, network neutrality is essential to enabling innovation and new business ideas. Without network neutrality, ISPs could limit consumer access to content or services that don't have an agreement with the ISP to deliver its content (i.e., don't pay for access to consumers or some other sort of corporate affiliation). This would essentially turn the ISPs into the content distribution mafia. Without network neutrality, content creators who are not connected with large media distribution outlets would not be able to reach end-users or only with potentially reduced performance.
Why do we need guidelines?
Except in a few cases, ISPs today have provided mostly neutral access. This neutrality is what has allowed the Internet to be the beautiful, organic, and ever-adapting resource it has become. The purpose of the proposed guidelines and regulations is to protect this organic nature.
The concern is that if the ISPs start charging the Web content companies for access to consumers, then the Internet will become a very corporate-controlled media like TV.
On the flip side, there are also valid concerns that government regulation of anything can create unexpected consequences.
Consumers will probably have to endure a shift from the current low-priced, "all-you-can-eat" broadband to a tiered and metered model. And that's probably a good thing so that 1 or 2 percent of all users are not using 80 percent of the network resources.
ISPs will need to continue to grow the capacity of its networks, as they have always done. After all, bits -- unlike other commodities -- are essentially free.