Collier County, which is tucked in the southwest tip of hurricane-prone Florida, reaches deep into the Internet for its taxpaying customers: culling weather data to prepare for the frequent storms, Googling for tech support, even comparison-shopping for the best deal as county officials buy fleets of cars.
But those efforts could become cost-prohibitive if network operators—namely, the Bell telephone companies and cable companies that serve as ISPs—begin charging fees for sending traffic in addition to the traditional fees charged to access the Internet. Such a pricing scheme would effectively create a toll lane for content and application providers willing to pay a premium, allowing ISPs to prioritize traffic as they choose.
Network operators got a step closer April 26, when a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation that would support such a pricing plan. However, there still are several hurdles to clear before the full House, which entered the debate earlier this year, votes on the measure in early May.
At issue is the concept of net neutrality, which holds that operators cannot give preferential treatment to content or applications in which they have an interest and that users have a right to use the Internet in a nondiscriminatory, unrestricted fashion.
For organizations that rely on the Internet to reach customers or constituents, an end to net neutrality would mean the prospect of paying a content-based fee to every ISP serving those customers. Enterprises that send the highest volumes of data, such as financial institutions, would face the highest prospective fees. High-ranking IT executives of large corporations contacted for this story said such a move would not only impact their budgets but also restrict the Web-enabled applications they could develop. Despite those concerns, they declined to be named in the story.
The debate has mobilized a massive lobbying campaign by the network operators and a countercampaign by nonprofit organizations, content providers, free-speech advocates and others. Enterprise customers, however, haven't joined the lobbying fray.
"Gradations of content are very important," said Mike Berrios, network operations manager for Collier County, adding that the Internet's open architecture encouraged the creation of myriad weather-related sites that emergency planners depend on. If the number of such sites were to fall because of rising costs, planners would lose vital information, Berrios said.
In addition, open architecture gives his team the freedom and flexibility to create ever-improving services for the county.
"When you start having to think about what [content and applications] might be restricted from a cost perspective, it makes it much more difficult to pursue them," said Berrios in Naples. "I pay for my Internet services. I pay my ISP every month for a certain amount of bandwidth. How I use that bandwidth shouldn't make any difference."
ISPs say they need to establish a new revenue stream to support continued improvements in the broadband infrastructure—an argument that has won support from many lawmakers who fear the United States is lagging behind the rest of the world. But critics say the scheme would give ISP-affiliated services an unfair advantage, ultimately restricting content and discouraging the development of competing applications.
Until 2005, Americans did not have to worry about network operators having a say in how customers used bandwidth. The United States had a long tradition, backed by law, that prevented operators from interfering with or discriminating against the content they carry. The tradition was codified in the telephone companies' common carriage obligations, which evolved into the principles of neutrality on the Internet.
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