Should the Internet Play Favorites?

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Illustration: Harry Campbell
Your favorite Web sites may be relegated to the Internet's slow lane if the companies that run its backbone network have their way. Proposed services from telecommunications and cable companies would let ISPs and other Web businesses pay extra to receive preferential treatment for their data packets carrying everything from video to music to text over the Internet. Such packet prioritization would deliver a more responsive Web to those sites' visitors--a valuable perk for high-bandwidth services like streaming video.

Prioritizing content based on type--meaning giving first crack at available bandwidth to services that need a quick, uninterrupted data flow, such as streaming media--is supported by both consumers and content providers. But charging the providers extra for special delivery of these packets is opposed by some Internet firms and consumer groups.

A Threat to Innovation, Competition?

Critics argue that the scheme goes against a basic tenet of the Internet, that all packets are treated equally. They claim that prioritization will allow established firms with deep pockets to stack the virtual deck against smaller, potentially innovative competitors. Critics also fear that qualifying Internet traffic paves the way for telecom and cable providers to lock out certain companies and services--for example, those offering competing Voice-over-IP services or audio and video downloads.

Telecoms and cable firms counter that the proposal does no such thing. "We will not block, impair, or degrade content, applications, or services," said Walter B. McCormick Jr., president and CEO of the U.S. Telecommunications Association, when he testified before a Senate committee earlier this year. Those who favor prioritization argue that such services will give incentives to the telecom and cable firms--by giving them a new revenue stream--to upgrade their networks, which will boost overall service quality.

Both sides are lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Those in favor of packet prioritization want no change to existing laws, while opponents want to codify network neutrality principles in new telecom legislation to ensure that all Internet packets remain on equal footing. A bill proposed in March, the Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006, would ensure network neutrality and expressly forbid companies from favoring the transmission of data from sibling companies. The bill's passage is uncertain, however, and recent drafts of the overhauled telecom laws do not appear to include these protections.

Control and Cost

Network operators are looking to recoup the cost of the fiber-optic cable and other infrastructure pieces that make a high-speed Internet possible. They argue that the upgrades are necessary to deliver such innovations as high-definition video-on-demand and high-quality teleconferencing. They expect businesses and consumers to share the cost of network upgrades. The current hands-off regulatory approach has let the Internet thrive, according to the operators, who insist that market competition would prevent abuse of packet prioritization by their industry.

Opponents allege that discrimination is not only more than theoretical, but has already occurred. Vonage CEO Jeffrey A. Citron said before the Senate committee that smaller network operators had blocked his company's VoIP service so it could not compete for phone customers in the regions those operators covered. Citron also said that businesses already pay for bandwidth, and that additional charges are basically double-billing.

New technology, such as the forthcoming IPv6, a new Internet standard with built-in packet prioritization, may mandate a tiered Internet. But telecoms and cable firms hope prioritized Internet traffic arrives much sooner.

However, with broadband competition often limited in many areas to one DSL and one cable provider, Kenneth DeGraff, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit consumer group that publishes Consumer Reports, warns that we need to protect network neutrality so as to "avoid a world where telephone and cable wires get to decide what you get over the Internet versus you telling those wires what you want."

Anush Yegyazarian

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