Before proceeding, be sure you’ve read my first post on Net Neutrality. Done? OK.
I’m going to use a really simplistic analogy to explain what’s happening on the Internet and what brought about the need for Net Neutrality.
GEEK WARNING: As in part 1, I warn my more technically knowledgeable readers that I am going to greatly oversimplify things here. If you have a way to explain this in words that non-technical-geniuses can understand, go for it.
Analogy #1 – The Highway System:
Since so many people refer to the Internet as “The information superhighway”, I have to use this analogy.
When the Internet was created, it was designed as a transport mechanism with equal access. All bits were created equal. No matter what type of data you transmit, it is to be relayed and carried the same as all other types of data.
If you think of our nation’s highway system, you can drive any brand or color of vehicle on the highway that you want. Car, truck, motorcycle, red, white, black, all are treated the same. I know, being stuck behind a big old broken down RV going up a big hill is annoying, but you get the point.
On the US Interstate highway system, there are 3 basic components: On-ramps, Off-ramps, and the highway. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the highway itself has infinite capacity. Obviously, that’s not true of the Internet, anymore than it is of I-95 around our nation’s capital. But, stay with me here.
With this assumption, the only limitations are the size (capacity) of the on-ramp to get data onto the highway, and the size of the off-ramp, to get data off.
When we talk about companies and individuals paying for the Internet, by and large we are talking about paying for the size of your on-ramp and/or off-ramp. For now, we are going to ignore the highway itself (the Internet backbone).
Content providers such as web sites (Facebook, AOL, Yahoo!, etc.) and streaming media providers (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) pay for on-ramps. How much they pay depends primarily on the amount of data that they are sending to the highway via their on-ramps.
Consumers pay for off-ramps, again based on the amount of data they pull off the highway.
[Side note: Although not always the case, on-ramps and off-ramps are typically priced based on their maximum capacity, not the amount of data actually traversing them. Essentially, you are paying to put data onto the Internet, or to take it off.]
Where this gets tricky is that we, the end user consumer, don’t live on the off-ramp. We live in neighborhoods fed by the off-ramp. Your ISP (cable, DSL, telelcom, etc.) manages the off-ramp. The ISP acts as a middle-man to the Internet backbones, aka the highway.
What makes Net Neutrality of interest is that the ISPs are getting tired of moving large amounts of traffic across their off-ramps from certain high-volume content providers. Those providers (Netflix is only one, but the most often mentioned), have created a demand for their content that is exceeding the ISP’s off-ramp capacity.
That leaves the ISPs with a challenge. How do they pay for the work it will take to increase the capacity of their off-ramp?
The easiest way is for them to charge the end users based on the amount of data that they consume. Another way is that they can charge users based on the TYPE of traffic/data they are consuming. And that is the root issue behind Net Neutrality.
Again, to make this simple, let’s say Netflix is the red cars coming off the highway. MegaCable Off-Ramp Services (MORS) notices an unusually high percentage of the cars using their off-ramp are red. There are so many red cars that other cars are having trouble getting off the highway.
Now MORS has a choice. Do they increase the capacity of their off-ramp, which is going to cost them money? Do they just let the cars coming off the ramp fight it out, and whoever gets through wins? Or, do they start limiting how many red cars are allowed to use their off-ramp.
What started happening was that ISPs were taking that third option. Some were actively limiting traffic on their off-ramps based on the type of data (limiting red cars, for example). Others were getting ready to do so.
Unfortunately, the customers, the end users who are paying to be fed by that off-ramp, want red cars. And they want lots of them.
And there you have it. The root of the issue.
Net Neutrality says that ISPs cannot limit the flow of cars across their off-ramp based on the color of the car.