What Is Net Neutrality? What Does This Mean To You?

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For the past several months, we have been hearing this term known as “Net Neutrality”. What is it all about?

Many people still aren’t exactly aware of this new jargon over which companies and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States are locking horns with each other.

In the following paragraphs, let’s take a look at what is net neutrality and what does it means to you.

What Is Net Neutrality?

As the name indicates, Net Neutrality (also known as Network Neutrality or Internet neutrality) is all about creating a neutral internet. The term supports the view that Internet traffic should be treated equally.

The term also backs that internet should be an open platform like any other utility used in our home like electricity as Internet has already become part and parcel of our lives and has been indispensable.

Net Neutrality advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers (ISPs) and governments on content, sites, platforms, the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and the modes of communication.

Any website, whether it may be Google or Netflix or Amazon, should be treated the same way in terms of bandwidth used to reach the internet-connected services.

Arguments Over Net Neutrality

The proponents of Net Neutrality claim that telecom companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services.

The term – Net Neutrality -- has not been popular till early 2000s when advocates of net neutrality and associated rules have raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content (e.g., websites, services, protocols), even blocking out competitors.

For example, ISPs like AT&T and Verizon may not like Google Voice as it allows sending of free text messages and they could block Google Voice from your smartphones and instead force you to use their SMS plans.

On the other hand, critics of net neutrality – mainly ISPs – argue that prioritization of bandwidth is necessary for future innovation on the Internet.

The telephone and cable companies argue that they have spent billions on their networks and they should be able to run them however they wish.

ISPs also argue that the improvement of infrastructure is costly and without proper compensation, results in major content providers not paying their fair share.

Current Laws

On Dec.21, FCC released new net neutrality rules with respect to ISPs.

Under the new rules, fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services; Also, fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.

Last but not the least; fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.

But, the FCC has not defined what constitutes unreasonable. And the Internet service providers -- the communications companies, largely -- have a certain amount of flexibility, as the FCC gave its approval, at least for the time being, of tiered pricing plans in which customers pay more for greater capacity.

That leaves wireless providers with more leeway than the wireline providers, since they have been experimenting with tiered pricing for the last few months.

Verizon's executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications, Tom Tauke, said that while Verizon agrees with the FCC that the Internet should be an open forum, it is not comfortable with the authority the FCC says it has.

Based on today's announcement, the FCC appears to assert broad authority for sweeping new regulation of broadband wireline and wireless networks and the Internet itself. This assertion of authority without solid statutory underpinnings will yield continued uncertainty for industry, innovators, and investors. In the long run, that is harmful to consumers and the nation, Tauke said in his statement.

At Free Press, a media reform organization, Managing Director Craig Aaron support for real net neutrality, instead moving forward with industry-written rules that will for the first time in Internet history allow discrimination online, he said in a statement.

Aaron was especially distressed by the lack of robust protections for users of mobile devices. No longer can you get to the same Internet via your mobile device as you can via your laptop. The rules pave the way for AT&T to block your access to third-party applications and to require you to use its own preferred applications, he said.

Is This Enough?

Though, it seems that FCC has made a significant move by releasing the rules, many of the supporters of Net Neutrality were still unhappy as the new rules are not applicable to mobile internet.

Mobile broadband, which is expanding more than wireline internet thanks to smartphones such as iPhone, is exempted from this new set of rules.

Though, Mobile ISPs are prohibited from blocking services on the web that compete directly with their own, they can continue to discriminate. They can do this, at any given point, deliberately slowing or blocking an internet service when one accesses it from a smartphone.

In addition, the ISPs could charge you extra to access certain services, like Facebook or Netflix, which was widely accessed by smartphone users.

Meanwhile, Apple’s Store and Google’s Android Marketplace are also exempted from these rules. So, if Apple decides to remove Google Voice from its App Store, they could remove it even though it's a service that directly competes with AT&T – iPhone’s exclusive carrier in the U.S.

The other group that is exempted from the rules is managed services, for which ISPs charge extra. For instance, AT&T offers its IPTV service enabling television and on demand services through the internet instead of over cable or radio frequencies, and AT&T dedicate a certain amount of their bandwidth for those services, thereby leaving less bandwidth for other services.

What Can I Do Now?

If you are not satisfied, or you feel that an ISP is discriminating services, or violating net neutrality rules, you can file a complaint with the FCC. The complaint can be filed online by going to “file a complaint” section at the FCC website.

There are two kinds of complaints you can make with the FCC -- informal and formal.

Informal complaints are much easier to submit. The Commission's Order says that end users and edge providers can file them via the agency's Consumer and Government Affairs informal complaint form, and the FCC will then look into the matter.

Now the trick here is, the form doesn't have a specific section to file complaints about possible content blocking or unreasonable discrimination by ISPs. The FCC says its Consumer Division will soon make available resources explaining these rules and facilitating the filing of informal complaints.

One can also file formal complaints. But, if you are not a company, public interest group, or trade association, it is advisable to avoid this route. Aside from the $200 filing fee, formal FCC complaints are like court hearings. They've got specific procedures, requires appearance, and docket filing rules. Lawyers usually get involved.

Apart from this, you can voice your opinion at SavetheInternet.com for pro-net neutrality voices and HandsOff.org for anti-net neutrality voices.

Final Thoughts

After the latest FCC rules, the wired internet in our homes have become bit safer, but the concerns over the mobile broadband that we use on our smartphones isn't over yet.

Let’s hope, the FCC would soon pass a set of rules for the mobile broadband too.

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