The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to meet tomorrow to consider whether to enforce net neutrality rules, or to leave the Internet unregulated.
Net neutrality refers to the concept that communications should be treated equally whatever their content or source (as long as they are legal). That means, essentially, first come first serve when using broadband connections. It is the same principle applied to telephone lines - your call doesn't get routed differently if it is to a certain person or a certain place.
The broadband world has proven a bit different, as one can pay more for faster connections. But recently conflicts have arisen between companies. Notably Level 3 and Comcast have been firing letters to the FCC back and forth.
Level 3 and Comcast both connect to each others' networks providing broadband service. If they need extra capacity, they pay extra. As long as the traffic is balanced it's a wash. Such peering agreements have usually functioned well.
But recently Level 3 has been using extra capacity, Comcast claims, and won't pay for it. Comcast says the fact that a major customer of Level 3 is Netflix means that Level 3 is a content delivery network rather than simply a transmitter of information.
Netflix, because it transmits videos, tends to use a lot more network capacity when streaming video to Comcast customers than Comcast sends over Level 3's network. That means Level 3 would be treated in a similar fashion to a rival television station rather than a simple carrier.
The fight is reminiscent of the battles between local phone companies and Internet service providers in the 1990s, when many were still using dial-up connections. Phone networks used to charge each other for terminating calls, and such reciprocal compensation worked well enough as long as the number of calls into an exchange were about the same as those going out. But dial-up Internet service providers changed the equation, because those exchanges that had them would get a lot more calls in one direction, upsetting the balance.
The situation was partly resolved by the death of dial-up services, as well as by the consolidation of local phone companies.
Now, it is not clear what rules the FCC might impose, as the agency has been mum about what framework it wants to use. The Republican member of the commission, Robert McDowell, has stated publicly that regulating the Internet would be a great overreach on the part of the FCC, as Congress hasn't authorized it to do so.
The meeting is at 10:30 a.m. at the FCC office in Washington, DC. Audio/Video coverage of the meeting will be broadcast live with open captioning over the Internet from the FCC Live web page at www.fcc.gov/live.