NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2007
What is Net Neutrality? — An Editorial
By Bruce Jacobs, Editor, Phoenix PCUG, AZ
Editor(at)phoenixpcug.org (click to email author)

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.

Usually the articles in the newsletter are very black and white. The articles tell how to do something, or why you should backup… This article deals with a subject that is more controversial than that. It is my attempt to explain a subject that is complex and which I can not discuss without my opinions coming into it. My opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the user group.  

So what is Net Neutrality? In simplest terms it is a movement which has as a goal creating legislation or federal regulations which will regulate some plans of some ISPs.  

The specific plans that are proposed that have people the most upset is the idea of charging websites for preferred access to their customers. For example, they would like to get money from Google and if they do not they may slow the connection between you and Google.  

I have to give some history here to explain some of what is going on. The Internet was mostly free of regulations. You can put almost anything up on a site and people could access it or they can ignore it. Your ISP is paid to give you access to the internet and does not care what you do while online unless you share your connection with your neighbors. There was no spam and very very few internet viruses.  

ISPs also “oversold” their connections they knew that everyone would not try to get online at the same time so they used formulas to determine how much infrastructure they would need for each customer. In the old days this was mostly how many phone lines they needed for each customer. (How many remember getting busy signals when dialing in?). Even today, when browsing the web, typically you go to a site, its contents are downloaded to your computer. Then the computer becomes mostly idle while you read the page.  

Most of the original ISP’s were companies which had as their primary business providing access to the internet. They were not phone and entertainment providers like we have today. Also there was no real conflict of interest if they were owned by a phone company.  

Things have changed over time. As dedicated lines became available, the ISP’s started to separate the customers into two classes: Business and Home users. Business customers were likely to use their connection 24 hours a day and use more bandwidth. The business customers were charged more for access because of this. They at first policed this mainly using the honor system. In some rare cases, they would cut a violator off.  

We now have lots of malware on the internet. This malware has caused lots of problems for the ISPs. Frequently a customer’s computer would get infected and would attack the computers belonging to other customers of the ISP. Computers would get infected and start sending out millions of spam emails. Or the infected computer would turn itself into a webserver to host pirated music or other nasty content. One partial solution to these problems was to use filters at the ISP to block this traffic. This was necessary evil in my opinions  

Some people also are considered by the ISP to have abused the network. All of the above things that computers can do because they are infected have been done by customers on purpose. There are other things customers have done which have resulted in a single customer using more resources that the average customer. Sometimes these uses are not considered legitimate by the ISP.  

Many ISPs have set up limits on how much bandwidth a customer can use in a month. I frequently download software from the internet. Legal downloads like Linux CDs and trial software. Because of this I am sure that I frequently use several times the average amount of bandwidth of the average user some months.  

Perhaps I need to step back for a second and describe some of the costs of business that ISPs have. They have the typical costs of doing business: buildings, labor, taxes, electricity, etc.  

They also have special costs that are almost unique to ISPs. They pay for the infrastructure that connects them to their customers (sometimes it is indirectly). The faster the connection to the customer, the more it costs the ISP. Frequently in the United States, the hands of the ISP are tied and the ISP can not easily increase the connection speed between them and the customer.  

The ISPs also pay for their connection to the Internet backbone. This is the part of the internet that connects all the ISPs together. The cost of this access is based in large part on the amount of data they send over the backbone and how fast a connection to the backbone they have.  

Companies like Google, have to make contracts with ISPs and pay for their bandwidth and connection to the backbone either directly or indirectly as well.  

Another revolution is occurring on the internet. This is the media revolution. New services are coming to the internet, which are only possible because more and more users have high speed access. I can purchase music or other content on line and download it to my computer. I can listen to an internet radio broadcast of a basketball game. I can watch a movie from YouTube or a live broadcast of an event. People are also using their high speed connections to make free phone calls using services like Skype.  

According to ISPs these activities are putting stress on their networks in ways they had not planned for.  

Many ISPs would like to use the filtering tools they have in place to limit the speed of access to these services. Critics of these plans point out that the ISPs have been advertising these same services to the public for years as a way of driving customers to their high speed access plans. Whether this is legitimate or not is a matter of opinion. If these types of changes are made, customers should be made aware of them so that they can make informed decisions when deciding which ISP to sign up with and what plan they want.  

Another change that has occurred is the ISPs have changed from a business point of view. In today’s world, ISPs are not generally the small companies that only provide internet access. They are phone companies, cable companies, cellular, and entertainment companies. Access to free phone service, movies and music is in direct conflict with the interests of the parent companies.  

The ISPs would like the right to discriminate against some of this traffic and let other traffic go through unimpeded. This would probably be something like having two lanes of traffic. A fast lane for approved traffic, and a slower lane for the rest.  

If you have made it this far, you can understand some of my opinions on these issues. You may not agree with them but the background was needed so you could understand.  

I believe that ISPs have some right to regulate the traffic that is going through their network as long the primary purposes is to ensure that the network stays useable and they are upfront about what they are doing to everyone evolved. There is currently no law on the books that I am aware of that makes this a requirement.

However, no one should have to pay an ISP for priority access to their customers. I pay GoDaddy every month for use of a server and access to the internet based in large part on how many people visit our sites. We should not have to start sending checks to ISP’s as well. Because the web is so democratic and diverse is why the web is as great as it is. If the ISPs are allowed to do this in market where they provide service, they will not be able to do this with fairness.

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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