The question of Net Neutrality seems to be coming up more often lately, although that question seems to vary from person to person. Usually the question is, "What the heck is Net Neutrality?"
The Internet works because different providers cooperate with each other. Conquent uses Sprint for its hosting facility, Sprint in turn connects to other networks, so if you want to look at www.conquent.com, the data will flow out our Sprint connection, across a couple other providers and eventually through the connection you pay for through your local provider.
We all connect to the Internet using different local providers; it may be a cable company like Comcast or Brighthouse, or it may be a phone company like Qwest or Verizon. And with faster wireless, it may be through the air on the cell network or WiMax.
It's this "last leg," or rather your personal connection, that all the fuss is about. Companies like Google pay a lot of money to the big boys like Sprint or AT&T to handle the huge amount of data they are sending out. The problem is that Comcast has no control over whether Google starts streaming video -- suddenly your connection could get slow because everyone else in the neighborhood is watching John Stewart throw a pie.
Now, that video may compete with Comcast's television service. So, Comcast might block Google's video service in order to promote their own service. Or they might charge Google to get priority, which means that Hulu would suck, but Google would be great.
And there's the rub. The innovation of the Internet hasn't come about because of back-room deals, it's because any service gets the same priority as any other service. Don't forget the cooperation part of the Internet -- private networks like AOL and CompuServe are gone because they couldn't be innovative enough to keep up with the "greater good" policy of Net Neutrality.
Net Neutrality means that Google can start as a small potatoes search engine, and as it grows, it keeps building up its own infrastructure, with no graft to some cable company in Idaho or Florida. Google has created new tools, and new revenue models, and helped keep an entire industry healthy and happy.
Google may go away someday because someone else comes along with a more innovative idea than search, just as Google has knocked AltaVista off the map. But without the ability for anyone to float an idea out there and see how it plays, the Internet will calcify into a few big players. And THAT is why we need Net Neutrality.
If you're interested in whether your provider is choking your bandwidth (and not living up to what you're paying them for), you can check up on them with these tools developed by a coalition of universities and private industry (yes, Google was a big part): http://measurementlab.net/.
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