What Net Neutrality Is Not
20 April 2017
Net neutrality includes a number of additional or enforced restrictions on Internet service providers to prevent them from prioritizing some content over others. Regulations such as these are essential for making sure the Internet is an open flow of information; that is, that ISPs are not gatekeepers to information. Internet providers often argue that net neutrality rules would stop them from expanding and improving their networks by removing their ability to force upstream service (like say, Netflix) to pay them for their traffic to be fast and reliable. Wireless providers have even suggested that they should be exempt from net neutrality guidelines because bandwidth is more limited over wireless networks. These arguments are not necessarily invalid. Service providers still need control over their own networks so they can continue to grow and evolve to support a changing Internet. However, net neutrality and an expanding Internet can co-exist and without making access more expensive.
On most modern networks, different types of traffic have different needs and need to be prioritized differently to guarantee everything works reasonably well. Your phone call, for example, should not drop because someone on the same network decided to load up Facebook. Prioritizing traffic so that your phone calls can coexist with gaming and web browsing is called traffic shaping. Traffic shaping is important as more things - such as phone calls - are pushed to move over the Internet. Some networks route phone calls over the same network as data, with something called Voice over LTE (VoLTE) to provide better call quality. Other networks, such as Republic Wireless, use VoIP (voice over IP) to route wifi calls over the Internet. Prioritization of VoIP (or gaming, or streaming, etc) traffic does not violate net neutrality practices. Net neutrality involves regulations that prevent prioritization of websites - no matter how bandwidth hogging. So, while service providers can do the required prioritization of traffic for different types of traffic (traffic shaping), they cannot serve different websites at different speeds (content shaping) due to strict rules regarding what reasonable. Information can still be accessed equally but different types of traffic can be managed as needed. Equal access to information is what net neutrality provides - not restrictions on how a network can be managed.
Worth noting is that net neutrality regulations do not prevent Internet providers from protecting their networks against malware or other illegal activity. Providers would still be able to block or throttle (slow down) illegal activity on their networks. Other regulations already pertain to such activities.
Despite their general opposition to net neutrality, some ISPs have actually supported the principles of it. Verizon and AT&T in 2008 agreed with keeping their broadband open with regards to net neutrality - although they were opposed to applying net neutrality to wireless networks. At the time, this made sense - mobile data was a relatively new technology in 2008 that had far more limitations. While wireless networks still have limitations, they do not need exception from net neutrality rules. Verizon is considering using 5G wireless instead of laying cables, and uses Voice over LTE for some phone calls on its network. Those two facts alone show that bandwidth is not at nearly of a premium as they would still suggest it is. What’s more, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are now aggressively marketing unlimited data plans and virtual carriers that use their networks, such as Ultra, now provide similar unlimited data. While the Internet has grown substantially since 2008, especially with streaming video from services like Netflix, networks have been able to keep up even with a mostly neutral Internet. Internet providers would have customers believe otherwise with data caps, but by their own admissions data caps have nothing to do with actual network limitations.
Net neutrality does not mean making the Internet free at taxpayer expense. There are already subsidies in place for low-income households to gain access, which in 2016 were expanded. These subsidies are not related to the ongoing net neutrality fight. Net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet through a connection one is already paying for, if they’re able to afford it. This means that no matter where you go online, be it at home, on the go, at a public library, or anywhere else, you can expect to be able to access the same sites at the same speed (limited of course only by the connection speed). This is a similar expectation to using a telephone at any of those same places - equal ability to call anyone on Earth no matter where the phone is. The exception to this is areas that choose to implement municipal broadband. In those cases, there may be taxpayer expense for installing and maintaining a municipal network. Municipal networks help the cause of net neutrality but are not required for a neutral Internet.
Net neutrality is still evolving with regards to legislation. Partly due to that and partly due to marketing and lobbying efforts, there are misconceptions about what net neutrality is and what it costs. The Internet continues to evolve at breakneck speed and is an integral part of doing business in the modern world. Making sure that evolution can continue while protecting access to information online is the point of net neutrality. As more people rely on the Internet for finding jobs, doing business, and staying informed about the world, ensuring ISPs do not become gatekeepers to information is extremely important.