Q&A: The network neutrality debate

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A landmark decision by US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has once again pushed principle of "net neutrality" to the fore.

The concept was a founding principle of the way the internet delivers traffic - treating data as equally important no matter where it comes from - but it remains to be seen how long that can last.

What is network neutrality?

Network neutrality is based on the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) are to treat all web traffic equally, regardless of content type or origin - for whatever data is passing from content providers to end users.

That extends to the idea that ISPs should not block any lawful content or control their infrastructure to preferentially deal with any kind of data.

What is the problem?

The issue is how much ISPs should be allowed to actively manage the bandwidth available to certain websites based on the type of content they provide. Such controls affect how quickly users can access and download data from the site.

The rise in internet traffic is putting an ever growing burden on the infrastructure of the net. Relaxing of net neutrality could allow communications firms to replace it with a tiered system that would prioritise certain types of traffic for those able to pay. However, this could mean consumers would either have to pay for premium services if they want full bandwidth access or accept a degraded service.

Net neutrality supporters argue that a tiered system will also favour large, well-established content providers who can afford to pay a premium. That would be to the detriment of start-ups - and internet innovation - they say.

Who advocates net neutrality?

A loose coalition of consumer advocacy groups, content providers, and some of the "founding fathers" of the internet such as Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee.

Their major concern is about the plurality of the internet, saying that everyone has a right to free and open access. In some countries, this has become enshrined by law as a human right. Any attempt to restrict this, say advocates, would be an attack on the very principle the internet was founded upon.

The groups' other concern is that any erosion of net neutrality would pave the way for a tiered service, that would result in telecommunication companies becoming the "gate-keepers" of the internet and then forcing users to pay for a premium service and forcing out competition.

Bank holiday traffic jam on the M4 ISP's say they need to be able to prioritise web traffic to avoid virtual log-jams

Content providers are largely in favour of the idea, based on the simple premise that more traffic equates to increased cost.

Who are opposed?

Many internet service providers (ISP), telecommunications firms and mobile network operators, along with a number of US think tanks such as the Cato, Goldwater, and Competitive Enterprise institutes.

Their argument is that the exponential growth in web usage, particularly bandwidth intensive video applications, along with the rise in infrastructure costs, means that their business has become more costly. The growth of peer-to-peer file sharing - both legal and illegal - has also placed a significant burden on their networks.

The argument is that being able to control the data rates for different types of content, choking the pipeline for individual users or at particular times, will allow allocation of bandwidth to more urgent applications.

Also some of the "founding fathers" of the internet, such as Bob Kahn, are opposed to aspects of net neutrality, saying that legislation to enforce the concept would "would freeze innovation in the core of the internet".

ISPs have argued against legislation enforcing network neutrality, advocating a free market principle which would let consumers pick the best service. Other industry groups see any government intervention and oversight in their policies as a slippery slope toward government control of the internet.

Can a compromise be reached?

Not exactly. While the FCC's ruling attempts to address both sides' concerns, it is clear that not everyone is happy with its decisions. The ruling could face legal challenges.

But the FCC has attempted to strike a balance by prohibiting fixed-line internet service providers from blocking customers from access to any legal content, applications or service.

For the first time, however, there is now a policy that will allow for what has been termed "paid-prioritisation", where companies will be able to pay for a faster service.

The FCC regulations also place tougher restrictions on fixed-line services from cable and phone companies than on wireless carriers, which have more limited bandwidth.

That is broadly in line with the approach advocated by Google and US telecoms firm Verizon in a joint statement issued earlier this year.

What do other regulators think?

By and large, they tend to lean towards the principle of net neutrality, however they are acutely aware of the needs of telecommunications firms and ISPs.

In June, Ofcom - the UK's independent telecommunications regulator - published a paper designed to promote discussion on network traffic management. It is expected that Ofcom will clarify its stance on net neutrality some time in 2011.

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