Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is getting more and more press, and as our lives become more dependent on the web, the decisions made in Washington on the subject of Net Neutrality are going to be very important. As such, everyone should have a good understanding of what is meant by Net Neutrality, the pros and cons, and how it might impact you.

The concept of Net Neutrality is that every packet of data processed by your internet service provider should be treated in exactly the same manner. Whether you are watching a movie stream over Netflix, carrying on a conversation using your VoIP telephone line, downloading music from iTunes, or just browsing the web, all of that data gets treated exactly the same way. It all receives the same processing priority.

For service providers, this presents something of a problem. The current market expects to be able to purchase an unlimited amount of network usage for a fixed price. This was fine for the service providers when the typical user only browsed a few web pages and downloaded some small files. Their network could easily handle the load without causing interruptions or delays in service to any of their customers. Enter video services like YouTube, Netflix, and iTunes video rentals along with peer to peer file sharing networks like BitTorrent, and service providers find that some customers are using a *lot* more data than others. Some customers might use so much data, in fact, that they cause service delays and interruptions for their neighboring customers. What is a service provider to do?

One option is to inspect the data going across the network and treat that data differently. Let's say you are a Comcast customer. You are using BitTorrent to download your favorite Linux distribution, and you also start watching a streaming movie through Comcast's on-demand movie service. Comcast might inspect that traffic coming from your home and cause the file sharing traffic to be processed at a lower priority than your streaming video. This way, you get a nice clear picture without interruption on your movie (and so do your neighbors), but your file download might take a while longer. Many service providers already have in place systems to detect peer to peer file transfer data and throttle the speed at which that data travels their network. This frustrates the file sharers, but also limits the impact they have on other customers using the network.

That scenario is the opposite of Net Neutrality. The service provider is inspecting data and treating data differently based on what the data is used for. But hey, they doesn't sound so bad right? I mean, the service provider is just balancing the load on their network to give the best service to all customers in all scenarios, right? Well, maybe. Consider, however, if you also subscribe to Netflix. You could watch a season of Weeds on Netflix streaming, but Comcast would really prefer that you pay them a monthly fee for the Showtime premium channels. Now that they have the equipment in place to inspect the data you are sending over the network, maybe they tweak the settings for Netflix data so that the image looks poor, or you get lots of re-buffering interruptions. Eventually you get sick of it and pay the $10 per month to get Showtime and, amazingly, the instant streaming content from Comcast video-on-demand shows up crystal clear and without delay.

This is the sort of behavior that the recently passed Net Neutrality bill aims to avoid. Internet service providers aren't happy with it, as it restricts their ability to manage their networks as they see fit. On the other hand, it is an important protection against potential anti-competitive practices.

A major concern for customers is the impact Net Neutrality will have on their taxes and on their internet service bill. As with any regulation, it requires auditing and enforcement, both of which require funding. That funding will necessarily come from taxes. This might become a new tax that you see on your internet service bill, or it might come from an increase in some other tax you are already paying.

The price you pay for your service might change as well, but that isn't due to any specific language in the regulation with regard to price setting. The regulation states that any two users paying for the same level of service should receive that service equally. Without the ability to throttle certain types of traffic, ISPs may choose to instead introduce tiers of service. If you have a cell phone plan, you are already familiar with this concept. The tiers of service increase the amount of data you may use with an increase in monthly price. This doesn't prevent users from hogging the network, but it does force them to pay for that privilege.

Throttling data based on service tiers *is* permitted by the Net Neutrality bill, and is something I am already experiencing through my own ISP. I live in a very rural location, and my internet service options are limited to dial-up, microwave wireless, and satellite. I use the microwave wireless service, which offers multiple tiers of service. I pay for one of the premium tiers, which means that the data I send on the network gets a higher priority than the data of users at other tiers. For example, let's say that my service provider can handle streaming two movies from Netflix at once. My neighbor, who has basic service, starts streaming a show. Another neighbor with basic service starts streaming a show. The network is now at capacity, and both neighbors are watching a show without interruption. Now, I start watching a show. Since I have a premium tier of service, my ISP allocates bandwidth to me at the expense of my neighbors at the lower tier. My show looks fine and is uninterrupted, while their shows get re-buffered as they fight over the remaining streaming slot. Now let's say someone else with my same level of service comes online to watch a show. The two of us at the higher level of service now use all of the available bandwidth, and the lower service tier receives none. In reality, an ISP would never completely shut off service like that, but those at the lower tier would certainly see their data come through at a miserable drip.

Net Neutrality is certainly a complicated issue. Service providers need the flexibility to be able to insure proper service to their customers at a reasonable rate, but we as customers also need to be protected from anti-competitive practices by those we purchase our service from.


Marta said...

Very interesting!

Jade Mason