Are you familiar with the term “net neutrality?” If not, here’s a simple explanation:
Net neutrality effectively means that all public Internet traffic is given equal priority. It’s broadly the way things work now, but increasing demand for bandwidth, especially from streaming media, is causing corporations and governments to look at how it may continue to work in practice.
As with most issues, there are two clear sides to the argument. Some individuals, such as Tim Berners-Lee, the “creator” of the World Wide Web, are outspoken advocates for the continuation of net neutrality. Meanwhile, service providers and the US Federal Communications Commission are allegedly looking at ways to prioritise certain traffic, effectively trying to move towards a service model where people pay to have their traffic given priority.
Streaming media companies such as Netflix play a significant part in the debate. According to some high profile news reports, service providers are looking to charge the likes of Netflix for priority access to their infrastructures to ensure that their services don’t suffer performance degradation.
According to unconfirmed reports, the FCC are considering backpedalling somewhat on the basic principle of net neutrality by allowing ISPs to charge for a “fast lane” of this nature, although they have recently denied it.
At the moment, the debate regarding net neutrality is very significant to the future of the Internet, and therefore worth keeping a close eye on. However, it’s unlikely to result in any notable change in the near future.
As every IT professional knows, access to “fast” Internet connectivity is still something of a postcode lottery. Even on the outskirts of cities the size of London, there are places where one street can access 80MB fibre connections while the next road along struggles with 3MB ADSL. Even fundamental changes to the underlying infrastructure are unlikely to stop TV shows buffering, and contended Web connections slowing to a crawl at peak times.
However, if the principle of net neutrality is allowed to erode excessively, it will result in an Internet where people, quite literally, only get what they pay for. This was never how the Internet was intended to work. Coupled with increasing government intermediation in the Web and widespread stories of privacy breaches, one must only assume that Tim Berners-Lee is shaking his head about the increasing state intervention in his creation.
Current developments are unlikely to be noticed in the real world for a few years. However, the decisions that are made in the coming months could shape the way the Internet works in years to come.