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A tiered network would need to discriminate between such differing types of content. It would have to identify the person requesting or providing a service, and verify that they had paid to use the ISP’s “fast lanes.” It would also have to recognize what types of online applications a user wants to run and what types of content they’ve requested – whether e-mail, video or photo downloads, streaming music, or a voice-over-Internet phone call. Furthermore, it would have to instantly switch each type of traffic to the appropriate pathway, reserving the fastest routes for data such as voice calls that must arrive on time. And, finally, it would have to track usage, charging the consumer or the provider (or both) accordingly.

Cisco, whose networking equipment is used by many ISPs, is working on an “intelligent networking” system designed to handle all of these tasks. In essence, its system wraps extra information around traditional Internet Protocol packets, identifying not just where packets are going, but who is using them and what they contain. Cisco hopes to sell equipment and software compatible with its “Service Exchange Framework” to both ISPs and providers of Internet applications and content.

So what would be the practical impact of such decidedly non-neutral capabilities? The first, of course, would be higher connection fees for the Web companies such as eBay, Yahoo, and Google – the Internet’s biggest users. The second, on the consumer end, would be that a tiered Internet would provide noticeably faster connections to the Web pages and information products of companies paying extra for their portion of the “pipes.” For instance, if Google paid its ISPs to route data over the quickest path, consumers would likely be able to download video files from Google Video Store faster than from rivals such as YouTube – unless YouTube ponied up, too. And the added cost of fast delivery would likely be passed on to the consumer, of course, in the form of higher prices or subscription fees.

Not surprisingly, then, many of the Internet’s original architects are opposed to upsetting the current system of equal access, precisely because the full benefits of the global network would be diverted to those who can pay. “The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services,” wrote Google’s Vint Cerf in a letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Cerf was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November for his role in inventing the TCP/IP protocol underlying the Internet. “The remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to [these] architectural characteristics,” he says.

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