Network neutrality has been a source of controversy in recent years, capturing the attention of networks, Internet service providers, web content providers, politicians, and many others.
The concept of a neutral network, where all Internet and network traffic would be treated equally regardless of an entity’s size or financial stature, gained a little momentum last week when AT&T stated that AT&T/BellSouth “commits that it will maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband Internet access service” for the next two years in its letter of commitment sent to the FCC regarding its merger with BellSouth.
AT&T said that it would exempt its Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) service and some enterprise services, but added “These exclusions shall not result in the privileging, degradation, or prioritization of packets transmitted or received by AT&T/BellSouth’s non-enterprise customers’ wireline broadband Internet access service.”
“Everyone who uses the Internet will benefit, at least in the short term, from AT&T’s latest concessions in its takeover of BellSouth,” Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. “AT&T has agreed to essential Net neutrality principles.”
Since its infancy, Internet traffic has been treated neutrally by providers. Traffic from web users and web sites have been given equal treatment, regardless of the content and data load.
As video, audio and other sophisticated applications have increased the demand on networks, concerns have grown that larger broadband service providers, primarily phone and cable corporations, will implement tiered pricing for network access, whereby content providers that pay a premium get priority access across networks. For those companies that pay the fee, their content would breeze through the fast-pass lane at the toll bridge, reaching users more quickly; those who don’t pay will be stuck in the crowded, slow-moving line, and users will have to wait longer for their content to load.
To prevent larger providers from providing different levels of service to Internet users based on their relationship with the company or build toll bridges on their broadband networks, some have pushed for the U.S. Congress to establish Net neutrality legislation. In 2006, the House voted down an amendment that would have made the Federal Communications Commission responsible for enforcing neutrality. In the Senate, a similar amendment was defeated in committee, but Net neutrality legislators managed to table a vote on the telecommunications bill indefinitely in hopes that the issue can be addressed in the future.
The push for Net neutrality legislation could again gain momentum soon in Washington. Democrats who are moving into the majority in Congress, led by Ron Wyden in the Senate and Edward Markey in the House, plan to fight hard for a Net neutrality bill.
Also, the Federal Trade Commission will host a two-day public workshop in February on “Broadband Connectivity Competition Policy” in Washington, DC. The workshop will bring together experts from business, government, and the technology sector, consumer advocates, and academics to explore competition and consumer protection issues relating to broadband Internet access, including “network neutrality.”
Sohn believes the AT&T/BellSouth merger language could assist the pursuit of Net neutrality. “The two-year term of the agreement should give policymakers in Congress and the FCC enough time to come up with a permanent Net neutrality policy that reflects the significant agreements AT&T has set out,” Sohn said.
The American Library Association has stated their support of Net neutrality:
The American Library Association supports Net Neutrality legislation that preserves the competitive online markets for content and services. Bandwidth and access should be offered on equal terms to all willing to pay. Otherwise, broadband providers will be free to leverage their quasi-monopolies into lucrative but market-distorting agreements. The vitality of voices on the Internet is critical to the intellectual freedom that libraries around the world are trying to protect and promote. Laws that preserve Net Neutrality are the best way to preserve a vibrant diversity of viewpoints into the foreseeable future.
According to an editorial written in the January 3, 2007 edition of the New York Times, Net neutrality is necessary for protecting Internet democracy. “It is vital to preserve the Internet’s role in promoting entrepreneurship and free expression,” according to the New York Times. “On the information superhighway, Net neutrality should be a basic rule of the road.”
“Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success,” according to Vint Cerf, Google Chief Internet Evangelist and Co-Developer of the Internet Protocol. “A number of justifications have been created to support carrier control over consumer choices online; none stand up to scrutiny.”
There is currently no legal prohibition (not including AT&T’s deal with the FCC) to tiered-pricing (non-net neutral), but there are legislative proposals to specifically allow tiered-pricing as well as to preclude it. Merit supports the philosophy behind “Net neutrality” but is wary of using legislation to enforce the concept. Merit does not support writing the specific right of carriers to use tiered-pricing into U.S. code. However, there is a risk of inadvertently stifling advanced networking innovation through net neutrality legislation that is too broad or ambiguous. Merit is also skeptical that tiered-pricing would be an effective strategy for commercial ISPs to follow due to the current diversity in the Internet backbone. Merit is an example of a network that is positioned to continue to provide high quality service regardless of the pricing strategy of a commodity Internet provider, even a large one.
Merit believes that the favoring of some types of applications over others and generally better controlling traffic on the Internet is vital to the continuous evolvement of Internet services. Examples include research on dedicated circuits, dynamically dedicated waves, and guaranteed quality of service. Work such as Internet2’s New Net which provides these kinds of advanced network services is good for the evolution of the network. Additionally, the idea of “smarter” networking protocols that know more about the network beyond neighboring nodes and use this knowledge to prioritize and shape traffic based on the application are the subject of current network research.
The concept of tiered-pricing is something that Merit does not believe is in the best interests of the Research and Education Community. However, Merit believes that because there are multiple paths through the Internet backbone it may be difficult for broadband providers to actually implement a successful tiered-pricing model based on content. Network engineering already takes economics and performance into account. If customers want equal performance to all sites, they will choose service providers that have engineered their networks that way.
Merit is concerned that legislation is a blunt tool that sometimes has unintended consequences. Merit is concerned that any “Net Neutrality” legislation be very carefully crafted so as not to stifle innovation. Merit is also wary of the overhead involved in proving neutral content handling should the legislation be broad enough to involve research and education networks. The implementation issues surrounding CALEA demonstrate the difficulty in crafting clear unambiguous regulation that balances generality and precision in networking.
Merit believes that through its strategy of aggressively pursuing peering relationships and transforming more of our network into owned fiber that we can continue to provide high-quality network service to our community regardless of ISP tiered-pricing or related practices.
In short, the “Net Neutrality” concept is important and Merit hopes it will be upheld by Internet service providers without regulation. If it is not, Merit hopes that any laws will be carefully written to foster innovation while enforcing “Net Neutrality.”