Big brouhaha as Google and Verizon propose an arrangement which, in my understanding, constitutes a second Internet, a faster Internet, that would be created for medical, industrial and…here it comes…entertainment usage. This 2nd Internet would not be open to the public, at least not for free. So, when your streaming movie stutters and stops because little sister is video Skyping her boyfriend in the next room, you’ll say to yourself, “Hey, I thought the Internet bandwidth was, um, just there, like air.”
Despite Moore’s Law the recent exponential growth expansion of some online capabilities is slowing down in certain areas. I noticed when traveling on a tour bus with wi-fi (pretty good that we had wi-fi!) that when some band members began using video Skype to chat to their loved ones, pretty soon the rest of us couldn’t get even an email in or out. Does Net Neutrality mean whoever gets to the table first gets the whole pie? I realized that with all these companies that are making a business out of the — up til now — unlimited use of high bandwidth media (YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Apple TV…well, you get the idea), all that data sucks up most of what is in the pipeline. HD streaming movies soon to come? Forget it.
Does anyone remember the days when you’d yell out, “Don’t wash the dishes, I’m going to take a shower!”? (For those who don’t, it was because a typical residential hot water heater didn’t hold enough hot water to provide for both usages simultaneously.)
I’m not sure the two-tiered model is the best idea — but I’m glad they are beginning to face up to this inevitability. More and more businesses are emerging based on an assumption that consumers will be able to upload and download limitless amounts of data for a fixed monthly cable fee to their heart’s content. It’s like charging a flat fee for water, and then one day some segment of the population decides they’re going to water their golf course-sized lawns and also add a pool. The reservoirs, the farms and local industry would dry up and shrivel instantly.
Phone companies have tiered data plans — if you watch a lot of TV using a mobile network on your phone, you will pay for it. I’m not sure why the same sort of idea isn’t acceptable for regular Internet. Not that the phone companies should charge if you use wi-fi on your phone — but a kind of metered data use for Internet might be reasonable. Maybe wi-fi should be free for the whole country in a capacity that allows for basic emails and some browsing, but for heavy media usage and data transfer a meter could start clicking?
Danielle Spencer, Todomundo Studio Manager, responds:
Net neutrality is primarily about whether the Internet Service Providers can prioritize different types of data. The issue of tiered pricing for consumers' bandwidth usage is related but that's not the main question right now. You ask, "Does net neutrality mean whoever gets to the table first gets the whole pie?" But in fact without net neutrality it's the large corporations who are already at the table who will get the whole pie and then some. When the Fox News website streams to your household twenty times faster than the local TV station's, it'll be because Fox has paid Verizon to give consumers faster access — and that will be a barrier to entry for smaller and less wealthy corporations.
I still feel that some sort of tiered system is inevitable…but yes, one hopes it doesn't prioritize Fox or anyone else. Maybe the answer is a pricing tier for customers (not providers) in which access to content is equal at each level? Then the customer decides to pay for extra speed, not the provider. That preserves neutrality, in the sense that big companies don't have an unfair advantage.
We already have tiered pricing for consumers. For wired internet (dialup, cable, DSL, fiber optic) we pay very different rates based on maximum bandwidth usage. For mobile phones, we tend to pay based on total data usage. Now, we could implement plans for wired internet based on total usage rather than bandwidth, and it wouldn't violate the principles of net neutrality. Indeed what you describe — that at a given level everything is equal — is the fundamental principle of net neutrality. The key distinction is whether you the consumer are paying more for more speed/data, or are you paying more for the same amount of data coming from Wikipedia than from Fox because RCN Cable has decided to charge different rates?
See also: "You Get What You Pay For"