It's been several years since the general public first began seeing and/or hearing the words 'net neutrality' in the headlines. And the debate is far from over.
At the end of last month, the US Senate Commerce Committee passed its version of a telecom bill already approved by the House of Representatives. The Senate version of the bill contained an amendment intended to add safeguards to preserve net neutrality, but the amendment failed to pass. As we went to press, the full Senate was set to debate the issue and how it should be enshrined in the bill, if at all.
The net neutrality issue also resurfaced at last month's CommunicAsia Summit via a presentation from Ray Owen, Motorola's head of technology for home and networks mobility for Asia. Owen - who stressed that the presentation was not endorsed by Moto, and was intended mainly to get a discussion going - argued that if net neutrality is defined as the ability of internet users to connect to a website or service without interference or discrimination by the carrier providing that connection, then net neutrality is already doomed.
Owen said that ISPs are already violating the concept of net neutrality through practices such as 'fair use' contracts where users are throttled back if their consumption exceeds a certain amount, offering 'homegrown content' with no restrictions (as carriers like 3 and Telstra are doing on their portals) and even brute-force methods such as packet sniffing that allows carriers to shape traffic based on the website the user is visiting.
More to the point, he added, ISPs and carriers are doing this because, in an increasingly IP-based world where users expect real-time VoIP and video to work well, QoS guarantees becomes increasingly paramount. And, as demand is already outstripping supply because of heavy video traffic, said Owen, 'net neutrality has to be eroded further. There's no choice.'
Neutrality never existed
Net neutrality proponents have argued otherwise - Gary Bachula, VP of external affairs for Internet2, testified to a US Senate committee in 2006 that QoS would be unnecessary as long as the core network was given enough bandwidth. Carriers that survived the bandwidth bubble at the start of the decade - and would have to bear the cost of capacity expansion for what they feel is a disproportionate return from the Googles of the world eating up that capacity - feel differently.
The arguments on both sides are as complex and multi-faceted as the internet itself. But Owen is right in that traffic shaping is already a reality, and a necessity under current network conditions, the business environment and the value-chain that supports it. In fact, David Clark - the chief protocol architect for the internet from 1981 to 1989 - pointed out at a conference in May that the net has never been free of traffic discrimination anyway, whether you're talking about spam filters, peering negotiations or port blocking.
Which is why the chief issue about net neutrality isn't - or shouldn't be - about the right to shape traffic, or how much bandwidth providers charge for it, but how fairly and transparently it's done. One of the main concerns of net neutrality proponents is that carriers can use traffic management as an excuse for either blocking services like Skype and Joost (which compete against voice and IPTV services) or charging them punishing amounts of money for bandwidth.
They're right to be concerned. Several carriers in North America have already been accused of blocking or degrading services like VoIP and websites critical of their business practices. And many ISPs worldwide make it standard practice to block access to 'undesirable' content that isn't limited to things like child porn.
This is where the real battleground of net neutrality should be fought. To be sure, enforcing fairness is harder than it sounds, and may require a degree of transparency that could make most service providers nervous. But if we accept that service providers need to manage traffic, then we also need to decide whether a mechanism is needed to ensure that it's done fairly.