Allow me to introduce you first to how the internet works under the hood. Your local ISP (Internet Service Provider, like Comcast or Verizon) is just the last provider in a chain of entities that provide the infrastructure for internet. They usually buy their bandwidth and connections to other providers from a larger company (a ISP for ISPs). They are categorized in multiple layers, usually referred to as tier 3, tier 2, and tier 1 providers (roughly “local”, “regional”, and “global” respectively).
Bandwidth is not as cheap as one may think. You pay for outgoing traffic from your network to another provider, usually one that sits one tier up. The more intermediaries the data has to go through, the more expensive it gets. I estimate that sending data to another computer in the same city is around 100 times cheaper than sending it across the globe, say, from South America to Asia, as that package will be passed around through a set of providers located in Europe or the US first.
It’s quite a complicated process (but it’s fully automated), and you could make an analogy with the international phone operators in the 1950s or 1960s, only that this time computers are the ones switching the lines around. A single company has no control over how the data will be routed. Your Tier-3 ISP doesn’t mind whether the tier 2 ISP will route your package from New York City to India: and it’s probably up to the Tier-1 provider to decide whether to go through Europe and Turkey or through California and China…
Netflix needs a lot of bandwidth. It has a cost effective strategy: placing servers close to your place to get better deals for bandwidth from the same local ISP that you have. This allows Netflix to provide a better service to you (being in the same region is not only cheaper, but faster, which means less waiting time before stream your movie) and it is also more convenient for your ISP (they save costs in outgoing connections to their Tier-2 provider and instead relay traffic inside their own network).
So, what is net neutrality?
Stephanie Creets, blogger at SingleHop, has summed-up the essentials to understanding this controversial issue in a balanced way. This subject is related to what happens when the network is congested. The owner of an ISP gets to choose how to prioritize traffic when the network is overwhelmed. For example, in your company’s network, the network administrator probably decided to give priority to applications like Skype, in order to avoid having those horrible delays in the conversation that we all hate. ISPs come up with similar solutions.
The owner of a network decided then to differentiate between different kinds of packages. It’s analog to enabling a fast lane in a highway: prioritizing one kind of vehicles over others. This means, not all “packets”, not every activity that you need internet for, are equal.
Comcast is not only a Tier-3 provider. They are also a Tier-2 provider. They are the owners of their infrastructure, and they’ve cut a deal to give priority to Netflix connections in case there is a network congestion problem. This sounds good; since it will allow you to see your movies in great quality at 7 PM, the peak hour for network traffic. The bad thing is, giving priority to some kind of traffic means that another type of traffic will be slowed down (like, for example, your Skype calls). Enabling a fast lane means that there’s one less lane for the cars that don’t go into the fast lane.
So it’s as simple as that: differentiating amongst traffic, by enabling fast lanes, goes against “net neutrality”. Is that a good thing? That’s arguable. If you’re a Netflix user, it’s good because you’ll be able to stream your movies faster. If you’re trying to do something else, maybe it’s not so great.
What do you believe? Should law-makers demand a neutral, more equitative, behaviour from ISPs?