The end of net neutrality: internet apocalypse, or just good business?
It's easy to take swipes at those who are anti-net neutrality. James Surowiecki of the New Yorker does so deliciously in that magazine's March 20 issue: "In the first decades of the twentieth century, as a national telephone network spread across the United States, AT&T adopted a policy of 'tiered access' for businesses. Companies that paid an extra fee got better service: their customers' calls went through immediately, were rarely disconnected and sounded crystal-clear. Those who didn't pony up had a harder time making calls out, and people calling them sometimes got an 'all circuits busy' response ...
"If you've never heard about this bit of business history, there's a good reason: it never happened. Instead, AT&T had to abide by a 'common carriage' rule: it provided the same quality of service to all, and could not favour one customer over another." (Read Mr Surowiecki's full spiel here.)
Expect more such vitriol as the latter-day incarnation of AT&T angles to introduce tiered charging for broadband customers who use fat pipe-intensive apps like use voice-over-IP and video. Such a scheme would be at odds with the long-standing internet philosophy of net neutrality, or treating every packet of data that flows through the net equally. But AT&T et al argue that the like of iTunes, Google and spammers are freeloading, feulling download-intensive activity that necessitates telcos to spend more and more on infrastructure.
The Economist takes an anti net-neutrality approach (read its editorial here; subscription required). It points out that, to a degree, net neutrality is already history. There are already music and video sites that you have to pay to subscribe to, and those sites in turn spend more on web hosting and other infrastructure to get their data to you faster. Strictly applied net neutrality would stifle new, richer ways to use the net for multimedia. Alternatively, a smart tiered system could charge bulk mailers, as law abiding spammers call themselves.
Fair enough. But the problem ocurs when a broadband infrastructure provider is also a VOIP, video and content provider (as Telecom NZ and all the telcos of this world are becoming as they try for a so-called 'triple' or 'quadruple' play that will offset fast declining revenue from traditional voice calls). Can the fox guard the henhouse? Wild conspiracy rumours are already flying that Telecom is 'shaking' Skype packets. That allegation is completely unfounded. But, like Woosh's up-front stance that it won't hinder Skype but will, ahem, only optimise calls make using its own VOIP service, it does illustrate that treating certain packets of data differently is not always about optimising the customer experience, or customer choice.