Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Net Neutrality -- Does It Matter?

Have you heard about "network neutrality?" If not, you will. And you should.

Warning: telecom and cable companies are real unhappy about it and prefer you remain ignorant about it.

Why should I care about "net neutrality?"

Picture this. You connect to the Internet. Today, you type any website address in your browser and it loads. Every website loads at the same speed. It only depends on the speed of your connection (and how many graphics are on it). It does not depend on which website you want.

Without net neutrality, that will change. Companies or people who pay the telecom/cable companies a higher fee will have their websites load faster. The rest will load at "normal" speed.

Sound familiar? It should. It's basically how the cable TV business works. Cable companies control which channels you can watch and at what price. You pay $X for the basic service, $X+Y for premium service and $X+Y+Z1 for each additional premium channel you want. Oh, and different premium channels have different prices. Confusing?

But wait, there's more bad news! If you had an idea for a new TV program or someone filmed a new show, you could never see it unless a TV network AND a cable company both agreed to broadcast it. Cable TV has few public access channels. Blogs, podcasting, personal TV channels do not exist on cable TV. They never will. Cable is a totally proprietary model.

So why do telecoms and cable companies want to change how the Internet currently works? Money. New revenue steams.

They claim that they will take nothing away from current Internet access; they are just adding a new, additional service for those who want more. They compare it to a 2-lane highway -- there is one lane for cars going at normal speeds and one lane for cars wanting to go faster. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well... Do you have to pay more on most highways to drive in the fast lane? No. Does every highway have a toll? No. Furthermore, how much choice for cable or telecom do you really have?

Where I live in Washington, DC there is only one cable company. And I cannot choose which channels I want; I can only choose among the packages offered by my cable company. Even with the cheapest, basic service I pay for lots of channels I don't want and never watch. But I still have to pay for them if I want access to the few channels I do want. One company, limited choices. That's lock-in. It's bad for consumers and bad for companies who want to offer new content and services to consumers. That's why the Internet has grown so much faster than cable TV globally.

The Internet faces few barriers from government or industry. It is based on open standards and non-discriminatory access. That is the best formula for innovation and growth -- for consumers and companies.

Yes, defining net neutrality will be difficult. But the principle is right and best serves our public interest --- our need --- for equal access to the Internet and all the content that the human mind can create. It leaves plenty of room for all kinds of innovation and proprietary business. But it ensures that the foundation of the Internet remains accessible, open, and non-proprietary.