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Net neutrality: Are all bits created equal?

Fibre optic cables
American ISPs have been experimenting with new supply models

The ability to visit big or small websites equally is coming under attack from critics of "net neutrality" in America.

This principle means all web traffic is treated equally regardless of the type or origin.

The networks delivering large volumes of multimedia content to US homes are feeling the strain, and demanding fundamental changes to the rules underlying the internet.

Internet service providers (ISPs) in America want more control over the pipelines delivering the data to net users.

Instead of treating all information equally, they want to manage their own pipes as they see fit - and potentially charge websites in return for prioritising their traffic and making sure users can reach their site.

'Big believer'

Some of the largest internet companies, such as Google, Amazon, eBay and Skype, which formed the Open Internet Coalition, have voiced their opposition.

The coalition say smaller companies should be given equal access to the internet and want the platform to remain fast, open and accessible to all.

Also, these big net players do not want ISPs to control how users access their sites.

Chris Libertelli, US director of government affairs at Skype, said his company was able to get off the ground thanks to openness policies on the web.

President Obama on YouTube
President Obama says he is a supporter of net neutrality

"In 2003 the founders of Skype invented the software in a basement bar in London. They put the software up and it was distributed across the planet and within a few months millions of people were making free Skype calls," he said.

Backing to this kind of openness has come from the highest office in the land, with President Obama adding his voice to the debate.

"I'm a big believer in net neutrality," the US president said in a YouTube Q&A session with Americans.

"We don't want to create a bunch of gateways that prevent somebody who doesn't have a lot of money, but has a good idea, from being able to start their next YouTube or their next Google on the internet," he said.

He went on to add that Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) shares the view of keeping the internet open.

ISP entitlement?

However, it is the FCC's job to listen to both sides in the debate - and ISPs such as Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon are being vocal in their opposition to proposals to safeguard neutrality.

Verizon points out that doing away with net neutrality rules could encourage more investment in the platform, like its fibre-to-the-home project Fios.

Link Hoewing, assistant vice-president of internet and technology issues at Verizon, said companies want a chance to compete.

Link Hoewing, Verizon
Link Hoewing from Verizon believes ISPs control more of the net supply

"I think that as long as we can do that it's good for the consumer," he said.

ISPs have seen network traffic increase dramatically in recent years, and they feel entitled to share in the billions of dollars generated by Google and others.

Asking consumers for more money is a problem because Americans are used to unlimited service for one monthly fee.

But in the past couple of years there have been various experiments tried out on American consumers.

Time Warner tested a tiered pricing system which it quickly discovered was unpopular with web users.

Tiered pricing trials failed because of low data limits which deterred the use of bandwidth hungry applications.

Another ISP tried to restrict bit torrent traffic and got pages and pages of bad press as a result.

Net neutrality supporters understand that some consumers decide to pay higher prices for faster gaming services.

But they have a problem with ISPs demanding tariffs from gaming services to have their service delivered faster.

This intensely political battle is being fought out in the corridors of power in Washington DC, but the outcome is likely to impact on every American net user.

Print Sponsor

Q&A: The network neutrality debate
23 Sep 09 |  Technology
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