Net Neutrality – Again

Over the past couple of years, I have written about the issue of net neutrality on multiple occasions (e.g., July 2006, Sept. 2007, Feb. 2008). The issue is now again in the news because of a bill introduced by Senator Markey (Washington Post description).

Here is my interpretation of the issue. Net Neutrality assumes that providers should not be able to block or “shape” the rate at which packet types are forwarded to end users. The ISPs argue that massive amounts of bandwidth are being eaten up by certain types of information – e.g., video (some of which is illegal bit torrent traffic). The opposing perspective argues that internet providers often are involved in multiple businesses and could shape traffic to improve financial gains from other services. For example, companies providing DSL (phone) connections may slow VOIP to benefit the long distance phone side of the business and cable companies may slow video to benefit the movie on demand side of the cable business. (View a short YouTube video explaining core net neutrality issues.)

There are educational issues involved in this controversy. Distance education and expectations regarding home access by all students assumes high speed access at reasonable rates (see recent EDUCAUSE statement in the Chronicle of Higher Education).

The bill would require the FCC to study the various issues associated with ISP claims of the shrinking of free bandwidth.

What would be a fair solution? To me, there are a couple of issues:
a) Companies should not be able to control which legal uses of the Internet will be supported.
b) Volume of downloads/uploads may represent a reasonable basis for setting monthly fees under circumstances in which users have reasonable access to multiple providers. When competition exists, it would seem a reasonable means to set costs.
c) Some provision should exist to offer all access to a resource that is becoming more and more essential.

I am assuming a and b could be solved through some form of regulation. It is c that presents the greatest challenge. Clearly, c would require some form of subsidy. The FCC already concerns itself with this type of issue as it relates to phone service.

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