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What is Net Neutrality?

Update:
June 3, 2017: Read more about Net Neutrality in this post by Lavanya Rathnam on Cloudwards (What is Net Neutrality and Why is it Important?).
January 2, 2015: Read more about the upcoming vote at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/02/fcc-net-neutrality-feb-vote_n_6408854.html.


According to Wikipedia, net neutrality is …the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality)

But what does this truly mean for Internet users?

According to net neutrality, high volume users would be charged the same amount as low volume users.

Currently, many national carriers charge extra fees for users who surpass a set amount of bandwidth usage (i.e., users who stream video from Netflix, Amazon or other online entertainment providers). Likewise, service providers with high bandwidth usage (Netflix for example) are being charged more by national carriers to stream their services to their customers, which in turn, raises the price for their subscribers.

Thus, our user who streams video and goes over their plan’s allotted amount will be charged more for the service. Our user will also be charged more for their subscription because their provider (Netflix for example) is paying more to stream their content. Therefore, without net neutrality, the end user stands to be hit with increased charges from their Internet service provider as well as from their subscription services.

Internet service providers say that to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to support high bandwidth networks requires more money than they are currently able to charge for services. They also say that the increasing use of the Internet and the demand for high-speed access by their customers places demands upon them to upgrade their services. For these and other reasons, Internet service providers want to be able to set their own pricing matrices based upon their client base. In other words, they want a free market approach.

Net neutrality, in the mind of Internet service providers, would place limits on what could be charged because of the need to regulate prices in much the same way that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does with telephone service. The Internet service providers argument is that it would stifle expansion of the necessary infrastructure to provide high-quality, high-speed Internet access and make it unprofitable for them. (One must wonder, however, if this argument is valid. Despite being tightly regulated by the FCC, telephone service has been taken to every corner of this over the past century.)

The benefit of a growing Internet infrastructure is yet to be fully measured. As more aspects of everyday life become connected – smart homes, smart appliances, smart automobiles, etc. – reliable high-speed Internet access becomes a necessity. A perfect world would enable growth into this connected world with equal benefit to providers and users of the service. Internet service providers need to be compensated for their willingness to invest in the equipment infrastructure necessary for such access, while at the same time keeping the cost of such services affordable for users.

How can we bring all of this about so that it is truly win-win for everyone?

Is regulation the answer? If so, at what cost for the openness of the Internet?

Is an unregulated field where the one with the most money wins the answer? If so, who will be able to afford it?

You can see that no easy answer exists, because at the end of the day someone has to pay.