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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Trains, Planes or Automobiles for the Net?

Net neutrality was put to a vote today in the U.S. Congress. Maybe you heard about it, maybe you didn't. (If not, read here). A net neutrality requirement was rejected by the Congressional subcommittee responsible for re-writing US telecommunications laws.

What does it mean? In the short term, it means that nothing stops telecom and cable companies from blocking or impairing web services and content that compete with the high-speed services of those who pay them premium fees.

Is this so bad? After all, the telcom / cable companies are investing big money to build broadband networks. If they will offer better, faster service, shouldn't companies pay more for that? Nothing wrong with people paying more to get more.

But, we should be clear. The Internet will not look the same after this. Today, the Internet is "flat" -- there is little difference in how quickly different websites and content get loaded and made available to consumers. You type in a website address, and it loads. If you paid for broadband access, you get the same broadband access to any website you want. From the user's perspective, all websites are equal.

That's not how it will work without net neutrality. That's not how it will work when the bill supported by the telecom / cable companies becomes law. When that day comes . . .

You, the consumer, pay for broadband (like you do today). You type in a website address. How fast will it load? That depends on whether the owner of that website paid a premium fee to the telecom / cable company to deliver its content and services on the "fast lane." If they did, you get it at the fastest broadband speed. If not, you get it at a slower speed. And that slow lane is going to get crowded as websites continue to proliferate globally.

The Internet will be a class system. And who decided this is how it should be? Telecom and cable companies. They will decide how, and how much. Why? Because they built the infrastructure.

It makes perfect sense . . . as long as you think that the Internet is more like an airplane than a highway.

We don't allow a two-tiered system to rule our roads. Why? Because we see roads as basic public infrastructure on which all users are equal. People don't pay the construction company more just to use the fast lane.

But, we do pay more to sit in business class on an airplane. Airplanes use a class system based on price. And seats are limited. And pricing is complicated. That is what the telecom / cable companies want for the Internet.

So, should we view the Internet as a public highway, or a private airline?

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