Page last updated at 16:32 GMT, Wednesday, 23 September 2009 17:32 UK

Q&A: The network neutrality debate

Pipeline (Eyewire)

A storm is brewing globally about the concept of "net neutrality" - a founding principle of the way internet has until now been provided. Content providers and consumer groups are in favour, while industry is largely opposed.

What is network neutrality?

Network neutrality is based on the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) are to treat all web traffic equally, regardless of content type or origin - serving only as a one-size-fits-all pipeline for whatever data is passing from content providers to end users.

That extends to the idea that ISPs should not block any lawful content or control their infrastructure to preferentially deal with any kind of data.

At issue currently is how much ISPs should be allowed to control the size of the pipes - that is, actively controlling the bandwidth available to certain websites based on the type of content they provide, and thus the internet speed that users perceive from the site.

Who is advocating net neutrality?

Consumer advocacy groups, content providers like Google, internet founding fathers Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, and as of a ruling in September, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

On one hand is the open philosophy of the internet in general, and advocates say that permitting broadband providers to monitor and control traffic in any way is a slippery slope toward the infrastructure industry wielding greater levels of control over a resource that is coming to be known as a fundamental human right.

More concretely, ISPs and mobile network operators have suggested that they could implement a "tiered" system, in which content providers can pay more for preferential treatment of the data they put into a given network.

However, that makes a financial incentive rule the internet, rather than the interests and desires of the net's users.

As the FCC chairman put it in his speech outlining the body's ruling on net neutrality, "The Internet's creators didn't want the network architecture — or any single entity — to pick winners and losers".

Content providers are largely in favour of the idea - the internet giants in particular, if for no other reason than the fact that the bigger the traffic, the more a given content provider would have to pay to compete. Smaller sites would feel particular pressure if the stakes for reasonable speed became too high.

Who is opposed?

Many internet service providers and, in particular, wireless internet providers including mobile network operators. They are responsible for providing content that in a sense costs them on a per-download basis.

San Francisco Bay bridge (Getty)
Internet providers advocate an "internet fast lane" to be available to buy

That means their business has become more costly with the steady growth in the downloading of videos and music files, along with the more recent explosion in demand for streaming videos.

To ensure stable and uniform service, they are required to install ever more advanced hardware that delivers internet, both to homes and over-the-air.

The argument is that being able to control the data rates for different types of content, choking the pipeline for individual users or at particular times, will allow allocation of bandwidth to more urgent applications.

ISPs have argued that a top-down ruling enforcing network neutrality is unnecessary, in that broadband provision is a free market and individual consumers can and will choose the providers that give the best service for them.

Equally, industry groups see any government intervention and oversight in their policies as a slippery slope toward government control of the internet.

What could it mean to consumers?

The tiered system that, in the absence of net neutrality, ISPs and mobile firms would like to implement would relieve some of the financial pressure they face as users become more accustomed to high-bandwidth services available in ever more devices.

While that would probably lead to lower ultimate costs to consumers, the system would favour the companies that can afford to pay to be at the front of the bandwidth queue.

Users might find very different results as they surfed around and downloaded; the sites that are already household names might be regularly faster for providing videos, but a more niche music streaming site might seem painfully slow.

While industry bodies argue that the abolition of net neutrality will stimulate investment in infrastructure and expansion of services, academic research has shown that an opposite effect would occur.

Researchers at the University of Florida found that the competitive advantage for which companies would be asked to pay would have less and less net effect as overall network capacity increased.

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