Time for public to weigh in on ‘net neutrality’

In May, the Federal Communications Commission issued a proposed new rule on network neutrality that critics say would open the door to fast and slow lanes on the Internet. The reason I’m writing about it now is because Tuesday is the deadline for posting comments on the proposal. You can comment on other people’s comments until mid-September.

Network neutrality, or what some call “an open Internet,” would guarantee that Internet service providers not discriminate between content providers based on business factors. Almost all agree it wouldn’t allow an Internet service provider like AT&T to block an Internet phone service like Vonage just because it competes with AT&T’s phone services. Nor would it allow Comcast to block a video streaming service like Netflix to protect its TV business.

But there are disagreements as to how one defines an “open” Internet. The FCC’s proposal would, for example, allow for an Internet service provider to enter into an agreement to provide faster content delivery to companies willing to pay for it. Companies like Netflix or Google could pay Internet service providers to assure a faster connection at home, which might benefit Netflix and its customers, but discriminate against competing video services that can’t afford or don’t want to enter into such an arrangement.

Just to be clear, network neutrality has nothing to do with the speed of your Internet service. Tiered pricing for different levels of service has long been the norm. For example, Comcast currently offers up to 25 megabit per second Internet access for $29.99 a month or 50 Mbps service for $44.99 a month. AT&T has a 6 Mbps plan for $14.95 a month and an 18 Mbps plan for $19.95 a month. But in a world of network neutrality, once you pay for that level of service, you are entitled to enjoy any legal content you want without the service provider lowering or boosting the speed.

The same is true at the other end. The types of servers, routers and hosting services that content companies use influences the speed of delivery. A website operator like me who pays a few dollars a month for a shared hosting service, for example, isn’t as likely to get the same speed or reliability as a company like Yahoo that spends an enormous amount of money for its hosting sites that serve millions of people a day.

But in a truly neutral world, a content provider wouldn’t be able to pay a service provider for faster or better access into the home of a mutual customer. So, Netflix might have the world’s fastest servers and you might have the fattest pipe and fastest Internet service you can buy, but your ISP couldn’t charge Netflix to deliver that content into your house any faster than it delivers content from other providers.

There are lots of arguments in favor of network neutrality, including the basic notion that ISPs make their money by selling you bandwidth and that they shouldn’t be allowed to double-dip by charging the content providers for performance that customers are already paying for. Mainly, network neutrality proponents argue that we need regulations to assure that the Internet remains a level playing field with equal access for everyone, from a one-person company to a multinational corporation.

On the other side, Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argues that “there is a very real threat of the slippery slope of regulation, leading to greater controls on the Internet. If the FCC is able to control one part of the Internet, why not control other parts?” He also thinks there are “better alternatives, including community policing,” such as the Net Neutrality Squad that monitors accusations of discrimination on the Internet and shines light on them. And Thierer worries about the FCC “freezing networks in stone” as it did with regulated telephone companies, which he says resulted in higher costs and lower quality services.

Whatever side you’re on, this is a heated and important debate because it will affect the future of what has become the world’s most important communications and information network. Big companies and big government are already weighing in and now it’s time for the public to have its say.

If you have concerns about network neutrality, today’s the day to share your thoughts with the FCC at www.fcc.gov/comments.

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