For Dr. René Alvarez, a surgeon from Homer, Alaska, the debate surrounding network neutrality isnt about the digital minutia of speeds and tiered services; it could be about life and death.
For his patients in Alaskas interior, the Internet isnt a link to movies and games. “The Internet,” he said during a recent meeting in Boston, “is their lifeline, their link to the outside world.”
Alvarezs biggest fear is that patients living in small towns in Alaskas interior arent in a position to shoulder any additional increase in Internet access charges.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a somewhat larger town such as Bethel, Alaska, has a per capita income of $12,602, which is about half the poverty level for a family of four in Alaska. An increase in Internet access could discourage the use of remote medicine, especially if its viewed as a bandwidth-intensive, upper-tier service, Alvarez said.
It is unclear how Alvarez and his patients will ultimately be affected by the nuances of the net neutrality debate in Washington, especially when few actually agree on a definition.
For telecommunications providers, net neutrality means they can charge more for bandwidth-intensive services and get a return on networks that cost them billions of dollars to build. Companies such as Google and Yahoo argue that telecom providers need to treat all traffic equally and note they could be discriminated against.
Lost in the debate are the concerns of millions of forgotten stakeholders such as Alvarez; Kimberly Johnson, a Washington-based educator; Tom McInerney, CEO at Internet startup Guba; and Ralph Riley, product marketing manager for Siemens Communications.
The net neutrality debate carried on through July via congressional testimony and is expected to resurface in September. The debate took center stage when AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre complained in November about having to transport traffic for the likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft, and suggested they should pay for the privilege.
In essence, Whitacre proposed an end to the all-you-can-eat model of bandwidth, suggesting that users such as Google—for the first time—pay more based on the bandwidth used.
Whitacres comments generated a reaction because it is counter to the way the Internet has worked since it was privatized in the late 1980s. The Internet was built on a model where all traffic was treated equally. Were net neutrality to be dismantled per Whitacres model, some traffic will be given priority—for instance, video will be on one, preferred-service tier, and e-mail will be on another tier. The fear is that the lower tiers—such as those crucial to small villages and small net stakeholders throughout the world—will be ghettoized with substandard service.
The application providers cried foul, and the debate found its way into the headlines almost immediately. On one side, the carriers, most notably San Antonio-based AT&T, suggested theyd refuse to carry traffic to application providers that didnt pay extra for the privilege. Carriers pondered tiered services and applications providers suggested such as setup was a form of discrimination.
Bill McCloskey, director of media relations for BellSouth, said his company will not limit access or degrade service to anything. He said what network managers really want is the ability to tag traffic as high priority when necessary so that customers can get uninterrupted multimedia streams when they want them.
“The carriers are claiming that if they cant find a way to subsidize the costs they have, they are going to raise prices for the consumer,” said Googles chief Internet evangelist, Vint Cerf in Herndon, Va. Cerf, who helped invent the Internet, said the carriers “are vilifying anyone who suggests that they are anything but equitable.”
Telecommunications companies beg to differ. Claudia Jones, a spokeswoman for AT&T, said the telecom giant will not block access to content for its customers, but she does think there needs to be a way for the company to charge for access to some applications.
“Mr. Whitacre was merely pointing out the demand in the evolution of the Internet,” she said. “The investments being made are multibillion-dollar investments, and companies that are accountable to shareholders will need to get some kind of return on investment to make the Internet better than it was and is today.”
Cerf said that Google, one of the companies pressing for net neutrality legislation, already pays a large sum of money to access the Internet, along with a huge bill for the companys internal network. While Google could afford to pay for special access, he said it might limit the number of companies that want to start doing business on the Internet. His companys position is that there should be legislation to prevent such charges.
That legislation is unlikely. On June 8, the U.S. House of Representatives squashed an amendment that would have required net neutrality provisions in the now-passed COPE (Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement) Act of 2006. A Senate version includes a user bill of rights, but no net neutrality requirements. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has already said that he opposes any net neutrality amendments to the Senate bill.
If this debate sounds confusing, thats because it is. About the only area of agreement between the many sides of the net neutrality issue is that if Congress passes a law, it needs to be carefully drafted, if only to keep the unintended consequences to a minimum.
Heres a look at four types of Internet users, their businesses and how net neutrality may impact them:
- The Doctor on the Digital Tundra
- Teacher: Internet Is the Library
- Finishing Off the Startup?
- Even Giants Like Siemens Worry