One of the most contentious issues in Washington today is “Net Neutrality.” The question centers around how telecommunications companies will charge for access to the Internet. Since the development of the Internet as a means of communication, all information passed on the ‘Net has been treated equally and information providers have likewise been charged equally with no distinction as to what kind of information is transmitted.
Let’s take a look at what “information” implies.
To a great extent, the history of the Internet mirrors the history of the Interstate Highway System. The Interstate was created with a dual purpose: to improve interstate commerce, and also to make it possible for military resources to be moved quickly and easily across the country. When he was a young officer newly returned from World War I, Dwight Eisenhower took part in an expedition to see how long it would take a military convoy to travel across the country, coast to coast. With the roads then in place in the U.S,. it took the convoy 62 days. When he became president, Eisenhower remembered that experience, and spurred on by the success of the German autobahn, pushed the development of the Interstate system. Since it had both military and commercial applications, Congress approved and work began on the complex highway system.
The Internet also began as a military project to enable rapid and secure communications among military installations. Further, complex weapons programs needed rapid communication among participating companies in weapons systems development programs. For example, although Boeing was the prime contractor in the development of bombers and rockets, companies here in South Carolina might have a subcontract for specialized parts for the bomber. Major projects were often distributed around the country, providing jobs in many locations. (To be sure, those subcontracts and jobs also helped gain votes in Congress to support those projects.) Communications among those participants was in digital form, generated by computers. The Internet became “the information superhighway.”
The comparison between the Interstate and the Internet can be taken a step further. People and cargo travel on the Interstate highways in individual vehicles. On the Internet, information is broken down into small pieces and transmitted in “packets” that are comparable to a vehicle. Each packet is in a standard format so that it can be easily transmitted along waypoints in the system. Each packet contains its origin, its destination, something about the type of information, and of course a small piece of the information itself. There’s even a number for each packet within a message, so that the receiving computer can put the message back together in order, and if necessary request another copy of the packet if it’s lost or garbled.
Under the current Internet operating rules, all packets are treated equally, no matter who sends them or what kind of information they contain. It’s how the system was designed, and they all get transmitted at the same speed. That’s where the term “Net Neutrality” comes from.
Under the proposed rules, Internet service providers would have the right to charge both by information type and by originator, and to set transmission speed. In other words, they get to decide how much the originator – and you – will shell out for their services and how quickly you’ll get it.
Right off the bat, there are several issues here: 1. The Internet is a public utility much like electricity and should be governed as such. In fact, it was first developed with money from the federal government. 2. The Internet is a common carrier, and should be governed under “common carriage” laws, which mandate equal pricing for all customers. 3. Under the new rules, Internet service providers will be able to determine how easily you will be able to access information. If they don’t like the information, they can drag their feet or charge outrageous prices to receive it. It’s happened before, in the 19th century, and it’s what led to the extension of “common carriage” laws into telegraph, telephone, and news “wire services.” Without those legal controls, they’ll have the right to decide for you what information you get to see.
Telecoms have an excuse for what they’re doing, of course: they claim they need the extra money to build the high speed network to handle the flood of data that’s transmitted these days. But here’s the thing: 1) The Internet “backbone,” the network that carries data between major points around the country, is a high speed network that’s already capable of handling what’s being transmitted and much more. 2) The actual problem is in “the last mile” the connection between the telecom and your home or business. Telecoms are still using slow copper wire and cable from the 19th and 20th centuries to connect to your house, and they’re dragging their feet on replacing it with modern high speed fiber optic cable. In the past, they’ve blocked municipalities from installing public access fiber cables to prevent them from competing. 3) Subscribers have already been paying for an upgraded system via rate increases that were granted decades ago in return for promises to build that high speed data network.
High speed data networks are already available elsewhere in the world, in places like Japan, Korea, and even Slovenia. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., deregulation over the past couple of decades has greatly relaxed rules over broad sections of our communications systems including telecoms, media production, broadcasting, and even newspapers, all of which depend on the Internet for communication. Mergers have greatly reduced competition while creating megacorporations with very deep pockets capable of influencing legislation favorable to them. More than once, they’ve come back for more and more. This time, they want control over what and how information gets to you.
John Sukovich is a Newberry County resident and a retired professor of business and other IT courses from Midlands Technical College.