My brother just posted his thoughts on a recent snafu by a certain Senator Stevens’ who tried to explain the Internet by comparing it to a series of tubes, as part of the ongoing debate over Network Neutrality. Many of you probably aren’t familiar with this and may think that it’s over your heads. Unfortunately, if Net Neutrality is defeated through legislation it could have a profound affect on the Internet of tomorrow. To that end, here’s an over simplified description of Net Neutrality.

The Internet as we know it right now is considered neutral, that is to say that all of the traffic routed across the Internet is given the same priority whether you’re day-trading, banking online, running an e-commerce website or just browsing your favorite blog. Many Telecommunication companies are now lobbying our government for permission to create a tiered Internet. This tiered Internet would offer paying customers higher-priority traffic. These TelCos insist that this is vital to the future of the Internet because their corporate customers need to ensure that their information is given priority over college kids who are just surfing YouTube.

Senator Stevens’ analogy of the Internet as a series of tubes isn’t all that wrong, it’s just a bit naive. Yes, all network traffic is queued and since none is given priority there is the potential for bottlenecks, much like traffic on a one-lane road. However, there isn’t just one road. There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of different “tubes” that traffic can be routed over. If one tube is blocked packets are just routed through different tubes.

The proposed tiered Internet would add a second level of routes – like a toll highway. You would pay your telecommunication company (the toll collectors) for privilege to send your traffic on this data highway. In theory, because these highways would be less cluttered (since not everyone would pay) your data may or may not arrive faster. However there are two problems with this.

The first problem is that this model has already been tested and it was determined that the mere action of determining which packets of data had priority offset some of the benefit. An analogy of this would be traffic backing up at the toll booth before entering the highway because a toll collector has to make sure you have paid to be considered priority. Researchers then tried a second test in which they just increased the broadband that was available (sort of like making a 2-lane road into a 4-lane road). Then all traffic received priority. Of course this requires the TelCos to pay for new technology to enable the wider bandwidth, whereas with a tiered Internet they could charge certain customers a premium to do the same thing.

The second problem with this is that it creates a sort of class-warfare among Internet users. Consider this example. The (fake) TelCo Hypernet makes a deal with major online retailer Jungletopia so that all traffic from Hypernet’s customers to Jungletopia is given priority. These customers immediately notice a dramatic reduction in page load time at Jungletopia compared to it’s competitors. Hypernet’s customers will inevitably do more business with Jungletopia because it takes them less time. Now all of the other online retailers are left with two choices – partner up with a TelCo to increase their revenue or worry about a loss in sales revenue because they can’t afford to compete on that level. And this only assumes that all non-priority-routed traffic is left alone and that high priority traffic is given a “boost”. But it could go the other way too in that non-priority traffic is throttled down while priority traffic is merely left to travel the normal routes.

This really does affect all of us. And while I’m not opposed to letting businesses gain a competitive edge, I don’t think it’s right to force the consumers hand . It has to remain an even playing field where the consumer decides who they will do business with.

* This post was originally published on July 14, 2006 at http://www.csb7.com/whyblogwhy/index.php/2006/07/14/an-overview-of-the-debate-over-net-neutrality/