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Net Neutrality

November 15th, 2014 · 2 Comments

There’s a lot of talk about “Net Neutrality” lately.

Basically, net neutrality means that those who provide and control the internet cannot adjust speeds or give preference based on content or other criteria. They have to remain “neutral” to the content.

Here’s a useful analogy: Compare an electricity utility and cable (or satellite) TV. For electricity you pay a monthly bill and get electricity that you can use however you want; lighting, TV, computer, air conditioning. You pay more to use more, but how you use it is entirely up to you. The power company can’t offer you more reliable power if you install a certain brand of air conditioner. With cable TV you also pay a monthly bill, but the cable company has much more control about what is available to watch. You can choose a “package” of programs and add on premium channels, but the company assembles the packages, and they often depend on financial agreements between the cable company and the networks.

Right now the internet is more like a utility company. You pay a monthly fee for service, but how you use that service is entirely up to you. Your ISP (Internet Service Providers like Cox or Comcast) can’t throttle your speeds for Amazon streaming movies but speed them up for Netflix movies, for example. This is the way the internet has functioned since the beginning with a few temporary exceptions, but things may be about to change.

In April of this year the FCC (which has jurisdiction over the internet) was reported to be considering changes to make the internet more like cable TV. One proposed change is that ISPs (Internet Service Providers like Cox or Comcast) can start charging internet companies like Netflix a surcharge to get a faster connection. Since Netflix uses about a third of all the bandwidth of the internet, it almost seems plausible that they might have to pay a little more for a reliable, fast connection. But the big concern I have is that a small start-up company providing some kind of video service might not have the budget to pay for a fast connection, and wouldn’t be able to compete on a level playing field. This would stifle competition and innovation.

And from the consumer’s perspective, I pay a premium for a faster connection already. Let me decide how to use that bandwidth.

The strongest opposition to net neutrality comes from the ISPs. Cox Cable would love to charge Netflix a fee for a fast connection. I can foresee situations like the current one between Dish Satellite and CNN: While they have been negotiating a contract for several weeks, I can’t watch CNN. If Cox and Netflix were negotiating their contract, would I be able to stream movies, or would Netflix be slowed to a crawl, or even blocked?

I can see a possibly acceptable compromise to net neutrality: Allocate bandwidth generally based on content type. For example, allow video streams (e.g. Neflix) priority over email. This sounds reasonable: I’d rather my email be delayed by a few seconds than have to wait while my movie stops and buffers. But this doesn’t help the cable companies at all; in fact it adds a layer of complexity to their systems, so I’m sure they would fight strongly against this approach.

An amusing side note to this discussion is that after Obama recently came out in favor of net neutrality, there were a few knee-jerk reactions from his usual opponents. Glen Beck mistakenly complains that the government wants to control the internet and says that with net neutrality the government will be able to “choke down his speeds”, which is exactly backwards. His guest asks why we would want the government intruding into the free internet which is working so well. Net neutrality keeps the internet free as it is now.

Ted Cruz calls net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet“, that it would be government control of the internet. Politifact gives him a half-true, since net neutrality would allow the government control to the extent that they could prohibit favoritism and enforce neutrality rules.

Rush Limbaugh complains that net neutrality is just a liberal ruse to control the internet. He falsely states that “The FCC has just asserted its authority to regulate the Internet”, which is of course wrong; the FCC has had jurisdiction over the internet for years. But that jurisdiction has been mostly limited to ensuring that everyone plays fair and that all streams are created equal. When Limbaugh says that the internet is working fine and doesn’t need to change, he is agreeing with Obama, though he apparently doesn’t know that and would never admit it.

My conclusion to this is that net neutrality has worked well for years and is beneficial to the consumer. Any large changes to the system would only benefit ISPs and backbone providers, and would be our loss.

Tags: Computers, Tech & Science · Opinion

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Richard // Nov 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    This has been a hot topic on one of the forums I frequent. I’m in agreement with you.

  • 2 Don // Nov 19, 2014 at 8:27 am

    Keep your paws off my wallet. Keep your eyes out of my bedroom. And keep your prying fingers away from my internet!

    The government already has WAY, WAY, WAY too much power and intrudes on everything we do.

    I completely agree with you. They should leave the internet alone just like they should leave education and health care alone. 😉

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