IT Trends

A Reprieve for Net Neutrality

Do you trust telecommunications companies?

There was a time, less than a year ago, when a lot of us thought that the telecommunications dinosaurs were plotting against us. Net neutrality is essentially the status quo, and they wanted to change that. I don't know about you, but I pretty much wake up every morning ecstatic about the development of the Internet and the Web so far. (If we could solve the spam problem, I could drop the "pretty much" part of that statement. And, no, I don't buy that dropping net neutrality would get rid of spam. Not for a second.)

What was it we were afraid of before so much else intervened? Oh, yeah, back before the awakening of the American public to the quagmire in Iraq, back before the 2006 mid-term elections, we were worried that the telecommunications companies were going to get "creative" about selling us services and access in ways that produce little or no benefit to consumers but would escalate both consumer confusion and telecommunications company profits.

As both content providers and content consumers, institutions of higher education, their faculty, staff, and their students definitely have a dog in this fight.

Some background. This quote from a San Francisco Chronicle article summarized the circumstances in 2006 quite nicely:
Network neutrality is the phrase that defines the traditional practice on the Internet in which all traffic is delivered at the same price and level of service. Recent court and regulatory decisions have allowed the phone and cable companies to change that practice by creating preferential delivery deals in which they could charge content creators more for better or faster service. Activists lobbied heavily last year to maintain the traditional "neutrality" of the Internet, creating a national debate on its future.
We were reassured by telecommunications company spokespersons that we had nothing to fear, that they had no intent to create tiered networks that would discriminate, eventually, against smaller content providers. Sure. They said that tiered networks would provide higher speeds for those who could pay extra and that prices for everyone else would go down. Sure.

We figured the opposite, and we were very concerned. We figured that, just like the Bush administration, in hindsight, was intent on invading Iraq the day after 9/11, the telecommunications companies already were working on plans to charge us one price for the bits we used to download a movie, another for the bits we used to download or send e-mail, yet another price for our website browsing, and an even higher price per bit for browsing "premium" websites.

Our fears were strengthened by the enormous arrogance of the advertising campaign the telecommunications companies aimed at consumers; intended to create bias but definitely not to educate. Check out this one from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which is fairly representative of what cable customers got barraged with last summer.

Frankly, we'd prefer that if we pay "extra" for something on the Web that as much of what we pay as possible go to the content provider. Of course, that's the preference of the content providers, too, which is why Google and others actually fought the telecommunications giants to a lobbying standstill in 2006.

We had hopes that the tide might turn for real when, in November, it became clear that the Democratic Party would take over control of the House and Senate in 2007. Now that that has occurred: The Internet Freedom Preservation Act was introduced in the Senate recently by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), among others.

"The success of the Internet has been its openness and the ability of anyone anywhere in this country to go on the Internet and reach the world," Dorgan was quoted in news reports as saying. "If the big interests who control the pipes become gatekeepers who erect tolls, it will have a significant impact on the Internet as we know it." (Read more.)

The Senators' bill would require the companies to allow us to buy "network service services" without having to pay for other "bundled services," and it would require them to treat all Web content providers equally.

Telecommunications company defenders argue that net neutrality will slow the development of all sorts of broadband applications and services that they would be perfectly willing to develop if they could just charge more for tiered networks.

I think, now, that we will get a chance to see what gets slowed down or not by the continuance of the net neutrality status quo. The at-least-temporary nail in the coffin for the telecommunications companies' efforts comes from the FCC, which did us all a great favor.

You see, AT&T, perhaps the most vigorous of the Big Four telecommunications companies in pushing for the end of net neutrality, has been trying to buy up BellSouth. Before it gave its permission for the purchase, the FCC worked out a deal whereby AT&T agreed to a two-year moratorium on its efforts. (Read more.)

Not every net neutrality proponent is happy with the entirety of the agreement. (See this link for more.) But it looks like we are getting two more years to see whether or not more great things happen in the net neutrality environment ... or not.

There are some things in life that I am not particularly optimistic about right now, but I do expect to continue waking up in the morning, logging on, and being very happy about all the new, nifty, cool things I can do on the Web.

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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