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Net neutrality in a nutshell

Net neutrality in a nutshell

What is it?

Network neutrality, which is being debated by the U.S. Congress, would mean that broadband providers such as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. would have to give all similar Web applications, services and content the same speed and quality of service. Broadband providers would be prohibited from blocking or degrading Web content and services from potential competitors.

So broadband users would get the same connection speed to Amazon.com as to a bookseller that has a promotion deal with AT&T. Comcast cable modem subscribers would get the same quality from the Vonage VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service as they would if they subscribed to Comcast's VOIP service.

Who supports a net neutrality law?

Large Internet companies, Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., eBay Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp.

Consumer/civil liberties groups: Public Knowledge, Free Press, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Common Cause, American Civil Liberties Union, others.

Special-interest groups: TechNet, Gun Owners of America, Christian Coalition of America, American Library Association, MoveOn.org, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, The International Webcasting Association, Educause, others.

Internet pioneers: Vinton Cerf (works for Google), Tim Berners-Lee, Professor Lawrence Lessig, Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist.com), others.

Who opposes a net neutrality law?

Large broadband providers: AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth Corp., Comcast.

Network equipment providers: Cisco Systems Inc., Qualcomm Inc., 3M Co., Alcatel SA, Corning Inc., several others.

Free market think tanks: Progress and Freedom Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Center for Individual Freedom.

Special-interest groups: National Association of Manufacturers, American Conservative Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, National Black Chamber of Commerce, Latinos in Information Sciences and Technology Association, more.

Why now?

Before August 2005, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) providers such as AT&T and Verizon were classified as "common carriers" by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), meaning they had to share their DSL networks with competing ISPs (Internet service providers) and carry all traffic, much like telephone service providers are required to do.

In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against ISPs that wanted cable modem service providers to offer their networks to competitors. Then in August, the FCC removed the common carrier requirements from DSL providers, saying DSL and cable providers should be subject to the same rules.

What's the problem?

So far, there have been only a handful of cases in which a broadband provider has tried to block competing Internet content or services. In March 2005, the FCC fined North Carolina broadband provider Madison River Communications US$15,000 for blocking Vonage VOIP service.

That's the most high-profile example of problems net neutrality advocates predict, and there have been few other problems so far. However, the FCC fine came before its August ruling on DSL common carrier rules and it's unclear whether the FCC could now fine a broadband provider for blocking a competing Web-based service.

What are the arguments against a net neutrality law?

-- Broadband providers say they have no plans to block or degrade Web content and services their customers now receive. It would be bad business to block access to content their customers want.

-- A net neutrality law would bring unnecessary and burdensome regulation to the Internet.

-- Some broadband providers have talked about new business plans that would charge Web companies a new fee for higher speeds and a better quality of service. Broadband providers say that they need new ways of paying for building next-generation, super-fast broadband networks, and a net neutrality law could prevent them from charging for preferential speeds and service.

-- Broadband providers want to be able to deploy new services, such as television over IP, that don't share the broadband pipes with everything else on the public Internet - your neighbor's e-mail with five photos attached, a college kid's streaming music service, people downloading videos from services such as YouTube.com. Without a separate pipe, broadband providers say they won't be able to guarantee the quality of service that IPTV customers will demand.

-- Companies like Google and Vonage are riding for "free" on networks built by broadband providers, some provider executives have complained.

-- Consumers will have to foot the entire bill for new broadband networks if providers aren't able to charge companies like Google extra fees.

-- Finally, opponents of a net neutrality law say broadband competition is just around the corner. If one broadband provider blocks some Web content, customers will be able to choose another provider.

What are the arguments for net neutrality?

-- Widespread broadband competition may or may not be coming, but it's not here yet, net neutrality advocates say. Most U.S. residents have the choice of one or two broadband carriers.

-- There is now no law preventing broadband providers from completely blocking competing content and services. Providers do not have an economic interest to give competing services top speeds, advocates say.

-- Broadband providers may block unpopular political views if there's no net neutrality law.

-- Without a net neutrality law, the fundamental openness of the Internet, with all voices having a chance to be heard, will be killed.

-- Broadband providers will be tempted to increase profits by signing deals giving large e-commerce companies better speeds and quality of service, net neutrality advocates say. This will create a two-tier Internet where the richest Internet companies can afford to pay for the best service and everyone else is in the slow lane.

-- Without a law, startup Internet companies that can't afford to pay premium prices will be stuck in the slow lane and may not be able to find an audience. Innovation will be killed and small companies won't be able to compete, advocates say.

-- Google and other e-commerce companies are not riding for free -- they pay millions of dollars in Internet access, those companies say.

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