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What is Net Neutrality?

2010 December 2
by Kathy Alice
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I don’t have broadcast TV. My old analog set is too old to get digital broadcast and I don’t have cable TV. But I watch TV about 7 or 8 hours a week, because I stream Netflix through my Wii. Aside from being totally out of the loop for certain large sporting events (the Giants won right?) I don’t miss it.

And I’m not alone. Lots of people use the Netflix instant queue, for $8 bucks a month it’s a total deal. Great service that makes Netflix a growing company to watch, and some of that money hopefully finds its way back to the artists. Everyone is happy, right?

Well Comcast, isn’t. It increased the fees it charges to carry all that streamed video over its network. This is against the principles of net neutrality and so the dispute is being watched carefully by netizens like me.

What is net neutrality exactly? Some proponents would tell you that net neutrality means a free and open internet. Umm yeah, what does that mean? I mean we aren’t in China, don’t we already have that?

To understand the issue, you need to focus your attention on the infrastructure of Internet. All those web pages, all those videos, are actually comprised of little packets of data that transmit over the internet and then get assembled into something understandable by your computer and browser. Companies that are the business of transporting those packets to your computer include Comcast and other ISPs (Internet Service Providers). You can think of Comcast as the newspaper boy, who gets a stack of customized newspapers delivered to him in the morning and then pedals around to get each custom newspaper to the right house. Now turn those newspapers into tomes the size of phone books and you might get why Comcast is unhappy. Of course the fact that cable TV subscribers such as myself are canceling in record numbers has absolutely nothing to do with it…

Net neutrality says that each packet is treated equally on the internet, regardless of where it comes from or where it goes. For example: there’s no “fast lane” for those that pay more. There’s no commute hour higher bridge tolls. And there is definitely no blocking of certain packets (this is what is meant by “free and open internet”).

Net neutrality has come up before when an ISP (yes Comcast) was caught slowing down certain “peer to peer” traffic (big downloads such as movies via bittorrent) back in 2007 until the FCC ordered them to back off which pushed the whole issue into court. ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T have asserted that they should be able to charge tiered pricing since they have invested in the infrastructure. Will they succeed in getting their way?

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Kathy Alice

Kathy Alice Brown is a technologist, author, blogger and SEO consultant with a background in web operations and engineering.In her spare time she loves to get outside.
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