On April 7, 2010, headlines across tech websites mirrored the same fear: “Could this be the end of free Internet? Is net neutrality dead?” Their fears were generated in response to the decision by the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals to overturn a FCC sanction against the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Comcast for its traffic shaping protocols.
The original sanctions were set in place in 2007 after customers discovered that Comcast was actively intercepting and blocking internet traffic from the popular Peer to Peer (P2P) program, Bittorrent. The case was considered a landmark decision in the ongoing battle of net neutrality, the idea that all traffic on the Internet must be treated equally.
Those sanctions were the first big step to keep the Internet free for everyone. The court’s decision prepares the way for ISPs to do as they please with all internet traffic, spawning predictions for the end of the internet as we know it.
For the average college student, the death of net neutrality does not seem to be particularly important. For David Martinez, a freshman at UCI, net neutrality is an unfamiliar concept. His answer was a simple “no, I’ve never heard of it.”
Martinez uses the Internet only for homework, EEE, Webmail and watching basketball. The impact of net neutrality does not really pertain to him.
While net neutrality is not an active concern for some students, net neutrality advocates argue that it should be a concern for everyone because it could potentially lead to an apocalyptic future for the Internet.
Consumer advocate groups like Freepress.org and SaveTheInternet.org are pushing for legislation that would stop ISPs from restricting how Internet traffic flows from computer to computer. They argue that ISPs will create an internet “fast lane,” where “premium” users would be forced to pay more in order to get high-quality Internet access; leaving “basic” internet users in the dust.
When the possibility of paying more for quality access to sites like Youtube came up, Martinez’s reaction was very different.
“I can’t be over the top,” Martinez said, referring to his already high internet, cable and telephone bills. “It would suck if I had to pay extra for that.”
For all of rhetoric involved with net neutrality advocacy, little attention is paid to the technical side of ISPs argument. The internet providers argue that without some form of traffic shaping and priority system, the internet will eventually slow to a crawl. It would be struck down by the growing burden of high-bandwidth applications like video conferencing, video streaming, Internet telephone and TV Internet services.
As demand for these applications continues to rise, networks will be overwhelmed and no one will be able to have a quality internet experience. Therefore ISPs argue that they should be the ones to decide what type of traffic is prioritized in order to ensure that all internet traffic can continue to flow freely without overloading the infrastructure. For them, net neutrality simply is not logistically realistic.
On a technical level, the ISPs are right. Professor Scott Jordan of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences believes the root of the problem lies in how fast internet technology has grown.
When the Web was first designed, Jordan said its primary function was for Web browsing and e-mail.
“The internet was built for [simple usage]. Packets just get into the queue and work their way forward. Those packets get across the country in a few tenths of a second. It’s first come, first served; it’s called best effort. It works great for [Web browsing, e-mail and light video streaming]. However, it does not for other stuff like [internet telephone, video conferencing, gaming, high definition video streaming],” Jordan said.
Furthermore, Jordan also explained how a priority internet system would work.
“There are two ways you can do this. One way is that you can say that some packets, telephone calls or video conferencing, should get into a different line, a different queue and they have their own dedicated capacity. The other way to do it is a priority system, where certain packets can jump to the front of the line,” Jordan said.
The fast lane would be more focused on high-bandwidth applications. Both plans raise concerns over ISPs’ proposal to tip the playing field by placing their own services on a higher priority than its competitors.
Professor Jordan offered his own solution: place the power in the hands of the user. Rather then letting the ISP decide what applications or services the user gets, the user would decide. This would akin to putting together a phone feature bundle with unlimited texting where you could get an internet package with high-priority video streaming. Quality control would come from the users. If you do not get what you were paying for, you would turn to a competitor.
UCI first-year undecided major Keane Sisouk agreed.
“It would have to be faster. Otherwise, I’d switch providers,” Sisouk said.
Regardless of the various proposed solutions, in the short term, students should not see anything different. But if the legislation gets passed, both students and general consumers should prepare for some major changes to how they use and pay for Internet service.