The core of the network neutrality debate is whether the people providing the ‘pipes’ – telecoms operators, in general – should be able to charge the big online companies, the Googles & Yahoos, for delivery of their content. If Youtube wants smooth playback of their videos on your screen, they may have to pay your broadband provider for a special quality of service.
Much of the controversy comes because this violates the ‘end-to-end principle’ which made the internet successful in the first place: the fact that you gave the network some data, and it did its best to deliver it, without any reference to what that data might actualy contain. Much of the innovation around the internet has only been possible because of this. Skype could not have become Skype if it had needed to ask permission from the network operators. The telecoms companies are now, partly because of the outcry, claiming that they’re really talking about better delivery of new services, not about restrictions on existing ones, but many people see this as a slippery slope to a bad place.
This week’s Economist has a good section on telecoms convergence, and I particularly liked this comment by Andrew Odlyzko:
The telecoms firms could even find that the boot is on the other foot, says Mr Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota. Referring to companies such as AT&T and Verizon, he asks: “What makes them think that they are going to charge Google, as opposed to Google charging them?” Cable companies, he points out, have to pay for the television shows and films they deliver over their networks.
It’s a good point. I’m lucky in that it would be fairly easy for me to switch broadband provider, and one thing that would make me do so very quickly would be if my current provider became unable to deliver Google’s services.
In the mobile world, of course, changing provider can be rather easier. My new T-Mobile 3G connection, for example, allows me almost unlimited data but includes a specific clause that allows them to downgrade my data connection if the use of VOIP protocols is detected. They offer a noticeably more expensive connection that doesn’t include this restriction.