by Grant Gross

Net Neutrality: Keeping Internet Pipes Free of Charge

Apr 15, 20062 mins
InternetIT Leadership

As Congress debates on major telecommunications legislation, lawmakers are considering proposals that would prohibit large telecom providers from charging fees to online content companies that use their broadband networks.

The measures would prevent the vendors from blocking services or providing slower download times for other vendors’ services.

A so-called Net neutrality law would ensure that broadband customers have unfettered access to any legal content or service offered online and could operate any legal device, such as a voice-over-IP phone, no matter which vendor provides it. Backers of the idea (advocated by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., among others) say that without a law, the danger exists for large telecom and cable companies—which control most of the broadband pipes in the United States—to discriminate against smaller competitors who provide their services through the larger companies’ networks.

That’s what Todd Putnam, CIO of Pac-West Telecom, is worried about. In January, Putnam’s company announced an alliance with VeriSign to offer converged VoIP and other data services. Without a Net neutrality law, Putnam worries that large broadband providers will be tempted to charge more for services they carry for competitors or provide faster access to their own customers and affiliates. “It will not be a level playing field,” he says.

Recently, officials from AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon have complained about companies such as Google riding for “free” over their broadband networks. (Google counters that it pays plenty for its own broadband access.) These large providers told Congress in February that they have no intention of blocking or slowing services to websites customers want.

However, DSL provider BellSouth (which is being acquired by AT&T) has proposed charging content providers an additional fee for improved network quality, including faster customer access, on its DSL network. AT&T, meanwhile, has proposed creating a high-speed network for its broadband television service separate from the rest of the Internet. The companies argue that they need ways to pay for building the faster networks.