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What is Net Neutrality and why is it important?

The idea behind Net Neutrality has been a topic of increasing scrutiny recently.  There are groups of people who are very out spoken about the importance of Net Neutrality and deregulation of the Internet.  For the majority of internet users the topic falls on deaf ears.  This is generally because Net Neutrality is attempting to protect the Internet against regulation and monetization that has not happened yet, but could happen and some may argue has started happening.  It is difficult to explain Net Neutrality and what can happen if the Internet was heavily regulated because the explanation has no historical evidence.
What is Net Neutrality and Why is it Important?The fight for Net Neutrality means the fight for the open and unregulated Internet.  Supporters of Net Neutrality want the Internet to remain completely open, belonging to no-one.  Access to the Internet should be hassle free, available to everyone,uncensored and extremely competitive where possible.  If this sounds familiar it is because until 2014 this is how the Internet has operated (for the most part in the United States).  Heavy Internet regulation has never happened before so its hard to point a finger at an example and state with conviction, “this will happen”.  What I can tell you is what is happening and why Net Neutrality is important.
Typically this is how the Internet works; a customer will subscribe to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for a connection to the Internet.  That customer will also subscribe to a variety of services available to them through their internet connection.  I may have a Netflix subscription, stream or download music, play games online, watch YouTube videos and connect to an encrypted VPN connection.  These services are either free or I pay for a subscription to a service which is delivered to me through my connection to the Internet provided by my ISP, which I also pay for.  You expect these services to be available to you regardless of what ISP you subscribe to.  You also expect the service quality to be in line with how fast of an internet connection you have and how fast the service can be delivered.  For example if I have an internet connection through Comcast @ 25Mbps downstream I would expect the quality of Netflix videos to be the same if I was on an internet connection through AT&T @ 25Mbps downstream.  Assumptions like this are common sense.  As a customer you expect to have access to the entire Internet at the speed you pay for.  What if that wasn’t the case?
Imagine a world where you must choose an internet provider based on the different services you consume.  A world where I choose an ISP because the services I subscribe to are delivered in better quality.   For example, on Comcast perhaps I can stream Netflix at full high definition quality but on AT&T I can only stream Netflix at standard definition even though my internet connection on either service is 25Mbps downstream.  To take this a step further; imagine a world where I have to look at what internet services are available to me through that subscription.  I have to make sure services like Netflix, iTunes and Spotify are included in my subscription with the 25Mbps downstream I am paying for.  Then notice that in order to stream HBOGo I have to pay an extra monthly fee to have that service included.  Previously I had written about how Windows Azure delivers the Winter Olympics online.  The extra service fee argument can be made to stream special events like the Olympics, World Cup or Superbowl.  This sounds a lot like another cable subscription model we are all familiar with but in this case I am paying for premium services instead of premium channels.  This could be very problematic for a world that is starting to become comfortable and reliant on cloud computing services.
This imaginary world is already starting to take shape in reality.  Netflix, who has been a strong Net Neutrality advocate, is the largest generator of traffic on the Internet.  Some ISP’s have demanded Netflix pay extra fee’s due to the amount of traffic the service generates.  Netflix has repeatedly refused to pay stating that it violated Net Neutrality.  The service has been plagued with performance degradation ever since.  With the FCC losing the battle for Net Neutrality, Netflix has changed its mind and entered into an agreement with Comcast, the nations largest ISP, which sets a dangerous precedent.  Comcast will now stream Netflix videos faster than competitors and will undoubtedly be a selling point for customers.  Suddenly quality of service is no longer dependent on your internet connection speed but your provider.  Essentially the first “premium service” has been created even though the cost has not been passed to consumers.
Prioritizing specific content is a direct violation of Net Neutrality and that is precisely what has happened with Netflix.  Based on this outcome it can be argued that any internet service will be treated the same way if they generate large amounts of traffic.  It does not matter if the service runs on Amazon Web Services, Windows Azure or Google AppEngine; if it is popular and generates enough traffic be prepared to pay for delivery.
Net Neutrality is important because breaking it can fundamentally change how the Internet works.  The more Net Neutrality is violated the harder it might be to re-establish.  The Internet is arguably the greatest tool ever made by man.  It has worked the way it was designed since its inception.  For the first time its fundamental design and the way it works is being challenged and that should be a very scary thing for everyone not just power users.
Click here for additional reading on Net Neutrality.

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Brian ODonnell

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