Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Between the lines: Network neutrality

Between the lines of the presentations I heard in which presenters dealt with the nature of information and information access in the future was an assumption: Having Internet access will allow a person to take advantage of all kinds of information and communication opportunities and we need to create learning opportunities for students that take this into account. However, if broadband companies have their way, when the Congress rewrites the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the concept of network neutrality--that the networks carrying the traffic of the Internet are non-discriminatory with regards to content--will be absent from the law. Instead, broadband companies will be able to charge the content providers for giving their content priority carriage on the providers' networks.

The idea is not that broadband providers will charge you for higher bandwidth connections and access to premium content--they already do that and will continue in the future. Rather, Comcast or SBC or Verizon will charge Google or CNN or Britannica Online for priority use of their networks. Think about it: In this scenario--the so-called "tiered service" model--if the Wikimedia Foundation can't pay up, your ability to connect to the Wikipedia could be limited because the provider could allocate a larger fraction of its bandwidth to other, paying, content or service providers. Streaming video from Disney or Viacom or Fox could be given preferential treatment over Wikipedia, your local newspaper, your favorite blogger, or your school's website. It's not that these sites would be blocked outright, but rather that they would be coming to you over what amounts to a slower connection. If this bandwidth limitation is significant enough, though, the practical result is that your use of the site is hindered. You have to wait. And you know what we all do when the wait is too long. Right, we stop waiting and click to somewhere else.

The question we, as educators (and consumers), need to ask is "From where does the content we value come?" If it comes from the big content providers, then we should join the baby Bells and cable companies, who are largely opponents of network neutrality, and lobby for excluding this principle from telecom legislation. If on the other hand, we believe that the value of the Internet comes from the Long Tail--those millions of smaller content creators comprising independent publishers, schools, universities, non-profits, and individuals (like David, Will, and Susim and Susan to mention only a few--who probably won't be able to pay for access to the fast lane of the Internet, then we should align ourselves with content providers and creators who, by and large, support writing the principle of network neutrality into law. We should lobby our representatives (soon!) to tell them how important it is to us that the plumbing of the Internet continue to be content agnostic.

Here are just a few starting points to learn more:

Wikipedia article on Network neutrality
Washington Post: A Gated Internet: The companies who build and control the Internet's pipes want to control the content over those pipes, too.".
CNET: "Without 'Net Net neutrality,' will consumers pay twice?".
Washington Post: Verizon Executive Calls for End to Google's 'Free Lunch'.

A quick Google search will turn up a bunch more.


At 7:59 PM, Blogger Charlene Chausis said...

This sounds serious! Of course I expect my information access to remain the same, or get better. Unfortunately, it may not.

What happens with the Web 2.0 tools that are currently in "beta" when the test period is over. Writely was just acquired by Google. It would be a shame to have to pay for the opportunities it provides for collaboration. It will be interesting to look back a year or two from now to see whether the tools we are excited about today, become commonplace or just a memory of the way things "could have been?"



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