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From Information Freeway to Toll Road

How “net neutrality” might change if phone and cable companies are allowed to create “fast lanes” for big customers.
May 24, 2006

The Internet was designed to treat all traffic with equal priority. Web pages from Google or Bank of America are transmitted via the same network nodes at the same speeds (and with the same occasional logjams) as the latest updates from Mom and Pop’s RV Park.

But this tradition of “network neutrality” has never had the force of law. Now a movement is afoot in Congress to codify this egalitarian idea, as part of upcoming revisions to the Telecommunications Act, which was last updated in 1996.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for phone and cable companies have launched an all-out campaign to keep network neutrality requirements out of the legislation – claiming they’re ready to offer premium services to their largest customers, and that they need to do so to recoup the billions they’ve invested in faster Internet backbone connections and fiber-optic links to private homes.

In such a world – where companies who can afford to pay will reach consumers faster – websites owned by organizations or individuals who can’t pay the fees would be relegated to second-class status. And that might ultimately shrink the range of resources and viewpoints available to average Net users, according to proponents of network neutrality.

“The Internet has been an unrivaled medium for free speech,” says Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press, a nonpartisan Internet policy think tank in Washington, DC. “With network neutrality, any little website can grow into the equivalent of a TV network and attract a mass audience. But if we give the network to the operators, then we have something that looks a lot more like cable TV, where there are ‘choices’ – but they’re all pre-selected by the programmers and the channels that get favored are the ones they own.”

Millions of dollars are being spent to sway members of Congress on this issue, and lawmakers are likely to settle it within the next year. If regulations limiting tiered Internet services become law, nothing much will change for consumers. If the principle isn’t codified, however, the decks will be clear for the nation’s largest Internet service providers – the cable and telephone companies – to create a “pay for play” Internet.

What might this two-tiered model look like? The cable and telephone companies haven’t been explicit about their plans for offering faster access to higher-paying customers; but using documents from network hardware and software makers, such as Cisco Systems, it’s possible to construct a snapshot of how a tiered Internet would work – and what it would be like to use it.

For one thing, a next-generation Internet with premium toll “roadways” would be fundamentally unlike the current network, which was not engineered to separate traffic into faster and slower pathways.

Under the standard Internet Protocol, information hops across the Web from node to node in small bundles, called packets, each bearing the address of its destination. And these nodes are indifferent about the content of packets; packets that belong to an instant message between two love-struck 14-year-olds are handled with the same care and swiftness as a video conference between two multi-national corporations.

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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