There’s a big-to-do about Net Neutrality these days. Everyone is stumbling over themselves to explain it, providing any number of stilted and self-serving analogies to dumb the concept down. I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’m going to explain to you, very simply, how the internet actually works, so you can understand why Net Neutrality is such a big deal. Ready?
The Internet — which includes the web and any number of other types of communication services — is not a single network. It is, in truth, many networks linked together. Your Internet Service Provider(ISP), be it Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, or one from a multitude of smaller companies, has their own network that you connect to. If you and your neighbor both have the same ISP, you’re both on the same network. You could directly transmit data between one another, and it would not cost your ISP a cent, because they don’t need to connect to anyone else’s network.
Of course, not everyone uses the same ISP. In order for the Internet to work, every ISP must agree to work together and share the data requested from one network to another. This is done through an Internet Exchange Point(IXP). If a web site is hosted on another ISPs network, the two providers transfer the data at an IXP. The various ISPs that connect at an IXP typically share data without expecting compensation. The cost of hardware is covered by the ISP using it, and the cost of upkeep is shared among all concerned parties. A smaller ISP may pay a third party for access to an IXP rather than set up their own hardware and peering agreements.
When moving large amounts of frequently-accessed data, an IXP can be inefficient. To handle the heavy load of things like software updates and streaming video, Content Delivery Networks(CDNs) come into play. A CDN will place servers with regularly-synchronized data across multiple networks. They often have agreements with multiple ISPs, and house their servers on many major ISP networks in order to avoid going through IXPs whenever possible. Companies like Netflix pay lots of money to CDNs in order to make sure their customers can access their services reliably and quickly. Major internet presences like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft even build their own CDNs.
The issue of CDNs and ISPs has come to head with Netflix, however. Netflix has worked with many ISPs in order to have their own CDN, brokering peering deals in order to stream extremely high-quality video. The deal, according to most sources, was simple: Netflix would provide the (incredibly expensive) hardware, and the ISP would in turn provide a free connection to their customers. This would reduce the load on third party CDNs, and make the transmission of Netflix’s data cheaper and more efficient for both Netflix and the ISP. Netflix also advertised which ISPs would offer their improved “Super HD” service.
Some ISPs, like Comcast, did not like Netflix’s proposed terms. In these instances, Netflix continued to use third-party CDNs. A funny thing started happening: Netflix noticed that customers using third-party CDNs were getting noticeably worse connections than customers on ISPs with direct peering agreements. In fact, connection quality was actually getting progressively worse in many cases. Netflix claims Comcast is purposefully slowing traffic from the CDNs they partner with. Comcast claims that their connections to the Netflix-partnered CDNs were congested, overburdened with traffic too heavy for their hardware to support.
Netflix argues that ISPs should be upgrading those connections. Their customers are paying for high-quality internet service and ISPs are not keeping up with their end of peering agreements.
Comcast argues that companies like Netflix put excessive stress on their network, and should pay for the cost of increased traffic.
Net Neutrality is the belief that ISPs must make sure that all connections have the same level of service, regardless of their source or content. Under Net Neutrality, ISPs are required to make sure every connection operates at the same level of performance.
ISPs would prefer charging more for high-bandwidth content like streaming video, or to charge both the customer and the source for the transmission of data, fundamentally changing the many peering agreements that have been in place since the inception of the Internet.
Proponents of Net Neutrality argue that allowing ISPs to limit the speed of certain connections will prevent competition and keep smaller companies from being able to reliably offer services on the Internet.
It is true that the Internet is a far more complex beast than it once was. However, if an ISP promises a certain level of service, do they have the right to only provide that level of service when the connection on the other end is also paying them?