The Great Debate
For a while it was hard to read or watch technology news without stumbling upon some article or salacious headline involving what is now becoming a household word – “net neutrality.” Net neutrality went from the back pages of Reddit to the front pages of USA Today and The New York Times, and even the White House has its own net neutrality website.
So, what is net neutrality and why is it so important? What causes the heavyweights of technology to clamor and spar off? These include an Ali-Frazier like bout including Comcast, AT&T, Netflix, and Google, to name a few, who have all jumped into the ring. Sprinkle in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and you have a real fight.
One can listen to one side of the debate and come away thinking, “That makes perfect sense.” Netflix and Google are 50 percent of the Internet. They are getting larger every day and increasing the costs for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). They should have to pay their fair share. It isn’t fair that the ISP should have to increase infrastructure costs because Netflix is growing and more people want to watch movies.
Then you listen to the opposing view, and they make sense too. What happens if an ISP can charge companies priority access to their networks? Should an ISP be able to charge a company like Netflix more so that Netflix customers can have a better experience? If large companies can afford to pay for a special lane so that their traffic gets preferential treatment and small companies can’t, how is that fair?
In order to better understand what the contenders are talking about, let’s break down what net neutrality is and the arguments on either side of the debate.
The Two Sides
There are two sides of the net neutrality spectrum: Strong and Weak Net Neutrality. Strong Net Neutrality (SNN) is the idea that ISPs, such as Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Telecom, treat all traffic the same regardless of where the traffic originates. Proponents of a SNN don’t want ISPs to be able to influence the decisions Internet customers make.
How might an ISP go about this? One example of how an ISP can influence Internet usage is by not expanding capacity to handle peak traffic hours. We’ve seen this happen in Netflix’s case. At peak times, it is over a third of the Internet traffic. As it has grown, ISPs haven’t expanded capacity to keep up with demand. And therefore, people watching Netflix have had poor performance. If I pay for Netflix and can’t get a good experience, I may cancel service and choose an alternative method of entertainment.
On the other side of the spectrum is Weak Net Neutrality (WNN). This is the idea that an ISP should be able to charge a company access to their network. This puts the burden back on the company that is responsible for the additional load of traffic. This would alleviate bottlenecks and make for a better Internet experience. ISPs believe it is fair that the companies that are doing most of the Internet traffic should be responsible for some of the additional costs as well.
Meeting in the Middle
Both sides seem to have their points and make sense. But one of the issues that complicates the discussion is that ISPs sell you, the customer, a particular service based on a particular download speed. For example, a provider may promise you 90 mbps download speed. You’d expect that since they are collecting your money every month that you should get this download speed when you want it. However, what they don’t say is that although they sell you on that amount, they don’t actually expect everyone will need 90 mbps at the same time.
In reality, the total usage at any given time, and all that they might be prepared for, is actually closer to 5 to 15 mbps per household. So, when Netflix comes out with a new release and the Internet traffic skyrockets and everyone is trying to get through the same “pipes,” then the provider has a capacity problem. Again, no one is actually hitting the 90 mbps. Essentially, the ISP is overpromising and under delivering.
As always, maybe the best solution is somewhere in the middle and not on the ends of the spectrum. One possible solution is that ISP could get rid of the fancy gimmicks and charge the customer for what they actually use. If I want to consume more YouTube videos and HD video on Netflix, then I’ll be happy to pay for it.