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Net Neutrality Positions Hinge on Assumptions

TMCnews Featured Article

March 25, 2011

Net Neutrality Positions Hinge on Assumptions

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has told Internet service providers that their plans for a two-tier Internet go against the principle of net neutrality. Berners-Lee said that Internet users should have free and open access to all content, and that content providers should also have unrestrained access to customers.

That sort of points up the confusion around the whole notion of network neutrality, understood as the idea that every user and entity should be able to communicate with every other user, for "free."

Even the original thinking that every entity should be able to communicate with every other entity no longer is possible. China will not allow some communications, on some subjects, by any Chinese user, no matter what a content or application provider might think. Many governments will not allow the use of Skype or other VoIP services and applications. 

Android (News - Alert) users do not have access to iPhone applications, unless apps are created to work in both domains. App store users do not have access to many apps, in any domain, unless they pay. Application providers cannot gain access to the Apple (News - Alert) domain unless they are approved. 

Non-Netflix subscribers cannot access Netflix streaming content. Nor can non-subscribers access newspaper, magazine, audio or video content available using the Internet. 

In principle, it remains a good thing for any entity to be able to communicate, non-commercially, with any other entity. It remains valuable for commercial applications and services offered "at no additional charge" likewise be accessible. 

But existing Internet access policies in the developed world, for example, would change for those sorts of applications, even in a "two-tier" Internet where packet priorities might be used, either at the request of the end user, the application provider or the access provider. 

What no longer is universal, in the current setting, is "free" or unrestricted access to all applications and features that depend on the Internet for communications. (News - Alert), for example, cannot be used by people who don't have a license. Nor can any other enterprise or consumer applications that require either a purchase or a subscription. 

Nor does the idea of packet priorities change access to non-commercial applications. What does change, under a regime that allows such packet prioritization, is the ability of an application provider, an end user or an access provider to optionally improve the experience of any non-commercial or commercial application that user has rights to use. 

In fact, lots of users might prefer to buy such quality of service features, especially when they are using VoIP services, watching entertainment video, or using videoconferencing applications, for example. Access or application providers might well be willing to pay for, and use, priorities from time to time, at crowded sports stadiums, concert venues, along highways at rush hour, and so forth. 

At the recent South by Southwest event, for example, more than one attendee quipped that "the rest of you need to stop using the Internet so I can." In the press room, all of us using the press room IP address hit Twitter so hard that we were getting "you're using the service too heavily and are blocked" messages. Switching to a different IP address restored functionality. But that's a good example of an occasion when it might have been helpful to give a bit more priority to Twitter access attempts, since so many users were using a single IP address, and so many of us were trying to use Twitter. 

In principle, the ability to give preference to Twitter, knowing there were going to be many requests from a single IP address, during business hours, could be an example of how quality of experience mechanisms can provide higher value, not less value. 

The problem with some of the arguments about network neutrality is that those arguments do not speak to the Internet, and application use, as they already exist. It is logical to insist that non-commercial and lawful communications not be blocked. 

But many of the developing uses for the Internet, including many cloud-based applications, will have a commercial element and must "block" access to non-licensed users. In that sense, the any-to-any principle, though still important for non-commercial or "no increment cost to use" applications, does not address the growing number of apps that already "block" access to non-subscribers or non-buyers. 

The ability to give priority to some apps, some of the time, or all of the time, does not "block" lawful applications. It does provide much-better tools to preserve end user experience, whenever users, app providers or access providers deem it necessary. The point is that "best effort" access does not work so well for real-time applications. Net neutrality (News - Alert) enshrines "best effort only." 

Many will argue that users and app providers need access to quality of service and quality of experience mechanisms at times of network congestion. Some additional payment, someplace in the ecosystem, will typically be required. But app providers already do this. Akamai (News - Alert) provides quality of service enhancements for app providers that pay it for the service. That essentially already creates a "two-tier" Internet, separating apps that use content delivery networks, and those which do not. 

Some argue there will be a hit to innovation if network neutrality is not made law. It is equally true there will be a different hit to innovation if it does become law. 

Gary Kim is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf

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