Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is the big deal about net neutrality

The debate about net neutrality is quite a heated one at the moment. This recent article from explains why many of the original innovators behind the establishment of the internet think that it is important that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are forced, by law to respect the neutrality principle. However, many other people would argue that the exact definition of net neutrality is not clearly enough defined to be incorporated into law and having too much government regulation is a bad thing. These people argue  that it would be better to allow companies maximum freedom to innovate in meeting their customer's requirements and that market competition will solve most issues.

I don't claim to be an expert in this area. I am mostly in favor of network neutrality principles, but I do see some merit in both sides of the argument. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
  • Market forces  can only be relied upon when there us genuine competition in the market. I am lucky enough to live in an urban area of a well developed nation, so if my home broadband provider started to place any unreasonable restrictions on my network link I would not hesitate to switch to one of their competitors. However, I know that many other people are not so lucky and do not have any choice about whom they get their internet service from. 
    • Whenever a company has monopoly on providing such a vital service, it is only right that the government should impose rules about how the service should be delivered. 
    • In addition, any company which places restriction on how their network is used should make this information visible to customers before they sign up because many companies tie new subscribers in to long contracts and it would not be fair it the consumers don't learn about the limitations on a service until after they sign-up.
  • One of the topics in the debate is whether or not it is acceptable for certain companies to pay extra to ensure that their traffic gets priority delivery. 
    • Personally I think that if companies are willing to pay extra for a premium service then I don't see any reason why companies should not be allowed to provide this service so long as they don't do this by downgrading the service to the regular customers below what they had paid for.  
    • Of course very few ISPs currently provide any guarantee about the level of service. If you use a site like  to test the actual performance of  your internet link, you will see that you rarely get the speed of link that you though you paid for. The speed advertised by the ISP is normally the maximum theoretical speed of the link. 
    • I think that ISPs should be forced to advertise the average or minimum speed offered. If this was done, then they could be allowed sell premium services to companies so long as this did not cause the service to their normal customers drop below the agreed level. 
  • Another topic of the debate is whether mobile service providers should be forced to follow the same network neutrality standards as regular ISPs. I understand that it might be expensive to build a mobile network which is capable of delivering full unrestricted internet service. 
    • I don't see any problem in allowing companies to try build a profitable service that is attractive to customers with limited disposable income (an increasingly large market segment) by providing devices which are capable of accessing only a limited number of sites/services. However, it is important that people know exactly what they are buying and therefore the companies should not be allowed to advertise that these devices have an internet connection.
Maybe some of my opinions are naive. I would love to hear what other people think.

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