HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

October 30, 2006, Herald Journal

Keep the Internet equally and fairly open to all

By MARK OLLIG

What started out as an equally fair and open “online community village” and a new venue and extension of our freedom of commerce and speech, is now being put to the test.

Today the Internet network has the full attention of the government and especially those large corporations that charge the Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) to provide the facilities and the maintenance of this network or “information highway.”

Last week, I watched with great interest, a program on PBS that was hosted by journalist Bill Moyers. The subject of the broadcast was “Net Neutrality,” and the program was called “The Net @ Risk: The New Digital Divide.”

So, what is important about net neutrality? Moyers pointed out since the Internet’s beginning, every website, regardless of its size or whather it was a small local website started by a single user, or a large nationally known website visited by millions of users, regardless of the amount of data being transmitted, they have been given equal or “neutral-treatment” by the Internet Service Providers, and their data content is transmitted at equal speed over the Internet network.

Those who support net neutrality argue that changing this system will give unfair advantage to the deep-pocketed web content providers, while the smaller websites of start-ups, small businesses owners, and nonprofits, who can’t pay the higher costs, will be disproportionately punished.

I was aware that the United States Congress was going to be doing a re-write of the 1996 telecommunications act (http://www.fcc.gov/telecom.html), and this included addressing issues about the Internet when the US Senate Committee held a hearing Feb. 7 on net neutrality, can view at this link: http://commere.senate.gove/hearings/witnesslist.cfm?id=1705

The debate over Internet neutrality has been heating up lately and the lines have been drawn, with the strong opinions on both sides of this issue being made known.

Bill Moyer’s site provides this definition of net neutrality: “Network neutrality: An Internet operating principle which ensures that all online users are entitled to access Internet content of their choice; run online applications and services of their choice; connect their choice of devices that do not harm the network; and have open competition among network, application, service and content providers.”

One of the “freedoms” of the Internet, is that anyone can set up a website, start a blog, or use home- made video to express their opinions, ideas, or commerce, and that venue will have the same access by all users on the Internet with no preferential treatment.

By that, meaning that today if I want to access a local “mom and pop” website, it will be handled by the current Internet network with no preference, there is no “flag” or marker that says to run say, the eBay, Google or CNN websites over a “better” network.

Today, the network is fair and there is no favoritism in terms of access or bandwidth.

A definition of bandwidth is: “the amount of information that may be transmitted anytime along a data line (network medium) and is usually measured in Megabits per second. An analogy would be a water pipe. A larger size of pipe can carry more water per second than a smaller or narrow pipe.”

At one time when, your Email was being considered as a commodity that you should have to pay (like a tax) for using, the argument was that it was taking business away from the US Post Office.

Bandwidth is the gold. It is what’s needed to send the data we are using over the Internet to our computers, is a hot commodity in terms of access, and control. The more bandwidth available allows the voice, video, and data streams of information to travel faster over the Internet and to us.

This bandwidth is controlled by the cable and telecommunications companies that provide and maintain the equipment and facilities that keep it all working. They are the “gate-keepers” of the network.

These companies are seeking to regulate by law, how fast the data will get to the users of it (us). One of the suggestions has been to set up a “tiered” or layering system of content delivery, whereby certain websites are arranged in layers or levels that are placed one above the other. This arrangement would be based on the money paid by the owners of the websites to the network providers, which controls the bandwidth of the network.

The data that travels over the Internet is “content” that consists of pictures, sounds, voice, text or video. It is all “content” and it is being converted to digital signals all the same and transmitted throughout the network.

The general understanding is that the providers of the network would charge a “fee” to the websites with data-heavy content. These websites would be the larger ones that are very well-known and used by the public.

In return for the payments made to the network providers, these websites would get “special treatment” by having their data content travel over a much faster route, or better network.

So what happens to the smaller websites on the Internet? Well, since some will be unable to afford the charges that would be required, they will remain on the ‘slow-lane’ of the Internet network.

Two views, one pro and one con, are made:

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who led the fight in the House for net neutrality said. “We have to go back to the rules which created the Internet.”

“A lot of us believe that we don’t have a problem today,” said Rep. Fred Upton, chairman, Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, (R-MI).

The Internet network is similar to that of the highway system. Think of the multiple lanes of the interstate highway system. These lanes are like the “path ways” of the Internet network.

The information being downloaded from websites to your computer is sent in data packets.

Think of the data packets as the cars and trucks driving on the lanes of that multiple highway. The highway does become congested, at times.

In the metro area, there is a program called MNPASS, http://www.mnpass.org/. This is a program where you can purchase a “pass” that allows you to drive your car in the less congested lane or special MNPASS express lane – even though you pay taxes that build and maintains all of the current highway system or network.

So, if you have a choice of getting your products or information from a source that has preferential treatment and thus would download much faster onto your computer, which one would you prefer?

It basically boils down to the question of “should ownership of the Internet network itself be under the control of and regulated by the government and large corporations, which will separate who and what it is used for and charge for the faster bandwidth capabilities to those that are only most able to pay for it? This will only increase the digital-divide and further the separation of the digital haves and the digital have-nots.

I say no, and I will continue to support the term “net neutrality” as it applies to keeping the Internet network equally and fairly accessible to all. The marketplace will decide for itself which websites it chooses to visit or use.

If you wish to learn more about this important issue, go online and visit: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/moyersonamerica/net/usworld.html.