The issue of “Net Neutrality” is a huge point of contention between ISP providers, cable firms and the average internet user. At first glance, Net Neutrality may appear inconsequential to most of us, but the argument about bandwidth will ultimately pass added cost on to us all.
Quite recently, Netflix signed a controversial deal with cable provider Comcast in the US to gain direct access to their broadband network. Paying an undisclosed fee, this meant that their movie streaming service would run much smoother via the US’s biggest cable company. The suspicion is that Comcast were slowing down Netflix’s service and favouring their own streaming service. This, if true, is to the detriment of the user who not only has paid line rental fees to Comcast, but also a subscription to Netflix. The fact that Netflix were willing to pay the fee suggests that Comcast have power over these types of services. Why would Comcast charge Netflix in the first place though? What makes them different from other internet services?
What is Net Neutrality?
Let’s say you spent an hour or two browsing the internet, looking at web pages and reading blogs. The data you received would be relatively small and wouldn’t require high speed, consistent data transfer in order for you to enjoy the content you wanted to. On the other hand, if you spent an hour or two watching an online streaming service such as Netflix or Sky Go you would need a constant, reliable stream of data which would be much more intense in terms of bandwidth usage.
Telecoms companies in the US such as Comcast want to charge web services like Netflix for the use of their cables to deliver a smoother service due to the strain on their resources. Net Neutrality states that all data is equal regardless of the source, and should not be given preferential treatment (like Netflix has been). Net Neutrality dictates that the source of data shouldn’t be discriminated against either. By singling out Netflix, the idea of Net Neutrality is being flouted.
Soon after the deal between Comcast and Netflix, the European parliament passed a law reform which would preserve Net Neutrality in Europe. It is currently law in the Netherlands and Slovenia, but if the legislation overcomes additional red tape could be a European law by the end of the year.
This could be a double edged sword. The fact that internet services like Netflix won’t have to raise their prices to accommodate for additional charges from cable companies means that line rental and internet provider fees could rise instead. This is due to the fact they’ll have to upgrade their existing resources to maintain a high quality service.
Why is Net Neutrality a good thing?
Well firstly, you could claim thatby prioritising certain traffic or data you are acting against the “spirit” of the internet. The internet was established to be used as a global tool, unrestricted, and used for the transfer of information and education. Once private firms start determining which data is more important an uncomfortable precedent is set. If everyone starts to conform to this idea then it will be difficult to stop net companies prioritising whatever data they like (and charging for the privilege).
For cable and telecom operators, a neutral internet being imposed upon them may cause problems with regards to providing a consistent service. Intense internet services such as video streaming uses up a large portion of their resources, and as they get more popular, operators must improve their infrastructures.
San Francisco Buses
Fundamentally, the fact that operators want to charge internet services as well as internet users for use of their cable facilities is wrong. It is comparable to the argument taking place in the city of San Francisco at the moment. Big tech companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook are having to pay extra to run bus services to pick up their employees.
Commuter shuttle buses taking workers living in the city out to Apple and Google offices are being charged extra by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). For every stop that these buses make to pick up employees they must pay $1 to the SFMTA. They already pay road tax and other fees to be able to drive on the road, however as they are using the roads in a slightly different way to other drivers they are being penalised for it. It is estimated that over the course of 18 months companies will have had to pay approximately $1.5 million dollars.
Is it unreasonable to ask internet service providers to foot the bill for improving their networks? The growing world of digital content delivery needs to be accommodated, that is certain. Is the public’s expectation of the service they receive for the price they pay reasonable? Perhaps all those “free” broadband packages the likes of TalkTalk & Sky have been bundling in with residential tri & quad play deals weren’t the best idea…
No matter how you feel about Net Neutrality, the EU has taken a stand against anti-neutral behaviour. Whether the US will follow suit remains to be seen.
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