Net neutrality fight far from finished

Despite the defeat of a ‘Net neutrality amendment in the U.S.Congress in early June, the heated debate about whether network operatorsshould be able to charge some Web sites and content providers morethan others isn’t going away.

At first glance, it might seem that in a market economy,infrastructure providers should be able to charge whatever they want. But a case inCanada provides a perfect example of why that might not workwell.

On one side of the ‘Net neutrality debate are the infrastructureproviders. In the U.S., these include companies like Verizon andAT&T. They argue that they should be able to charge some Webcontent providers more than others and apply QoS schemes fortraffic like voice and video. The reason for allowing tieredservices is that Internet traffic is booming and infrastructureplayers say they need to charge more to cover their infrastructurebuild-out expenses.

On the other side of the neutrality debate are content providerssuch as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, as well as academics andconsumer groups. They argue that allowing infrastructure providersto charge content providers more for some services will ultimatelycreate a two-tiered Internet – one for the rich (or thosewell-connected to the infrastructure providers) and one for thepoor.

In Canada, Shaw Communications recommends that users signing upfor non-Shaw VoIP services pay a $10 monthly QoS fee to ensuretheir voice service is reliable. That doesn’t seem like anunreasonable policy. After all, VoIP requires higher QoS treatmentthan, say, file sharing. The catch in this case is that in additionto being an infrastructure provider, Shaw also offers a cable telephone service, which competesdirectly with other VoIP offerings. By recommending consumers pay afee to ensure their non-Shaw VoIP is reliable, Shaw is making itsown voice offering more attractive.

In an ideal world, the Internet would be ruled by market forces.Unfortunately, infrastructure providers can’t be trusted to treatall content providers equally, so some regulation is going to benecessary to ensure healthy competition.

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