There's been quite a bit of noise recently about tiered internet access. I think a lot of the reporting has been nonsense: headlines like "The End of the Internet" leading into frantic expositions by people who have no idea what they are talking about.
First, it should be obvious that there always has been a tiered intenet and always will be if you are simply looking at the cost of bandwidth: neither I nor Google run our servers on $9.95 a month dial up connections. The connectivity costs for this site run about $100.00 a month; Google has to pay a little more to support its services.
That's going to remain true no matter what. If you run a website on a free or low cost hosting site, access to that content will be slower than it will be for those of us who pay for higher performance. If you need really fast and reliable access, people like Akamai will help you out - for a price.
Unfortunately, that basic truth is getting all muddled up with arguments about net neutrality - the idea that no packet has any more value than any other packet. The reason for the confusion is that these two apparently separate concepts actually are related.
Here's the nub of it: applications like voice over ip and video on demand need high speed pipes. We all know that: you don't expect to have much fun with streaming video if you have a low speed bottom of the line dsl connection. So, if you want those high bandwidth applications, you get (and pay for) higher speed connectivity.
It's also true that some traffic you may want is effectively impossible even if you've paid for higher speed. You aren't going to download the Sopranos Season Two in High Def while your coffee brews. The pipes to your house or office have limits.
But most of the time you don't need the speed you are paying for. Email, instant messaging, and most web browsing doesn't need high speed. And of course some of the time you are actually just using your computer itself and aren't taking anything from the internet. A lot of the speed you pay for never gets used.
Quality of Service (QOS) is an answer.
If the video or voice packets could get preferential treatment, if they didn't have to compete with the zillions of junk email packets buzzing through our fiber and cables, you could get the performance you want from a lower speed connection or more performance from what you have now.
That's what all the fuss is about: phone companies wanting to prioritize certain internet traffic (and of course charge more for doing so). The argument against this is that anything that gives an advantage to certain traffic necessarily imposes a disadvantage on other traffic. Maybe: there's a lot of "dark fiber" (unused fiber optic capacity) available that could be "lit up" (turned on) to handle priority traffic. But more important is the argument that laissez faire worked for the internet, and made it what it is today: do we really want to mess with that so that people can download *redacted* faster?
Well, maybe so. This is all driven by consumer demand. What the internet was is not what the internet is: a medium originally conceived for one purpose ends up being primarily used for something else. Do we "need" QOS routing? Probably not, but we apparently want it.
Fears that this will destroy innovation are probably over blown, and dire predictions of increasing costs likely are also. Costs might increase, but if people are willing to pay for the services, so be it: just because all you need is a bicycle doesn't mean that the interstate highway system shouldn't include toll roads.
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