Making sense of network neutrality

Kai Ryssdal May 17, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s getting most of the press, but there is more afoot in Washington thanjust immigration. The Senate’s getting into high tech tomorrow. The debate starts on the Communications Act of 2006, 135 pages worth of rules and regulations. Doesn’t sound like much, but the companies that will have to live by those rules aren’t all that happy about them. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli has been covering the story.

Hey, Lisa.


RYSSDAL: The big buzzword around this bill has been something called “netneutrality.” And let me understand this for a second. I thought the Internetwas kind of neutral to begin with?

NAPOLI: Everybody’s confused, Kai. You’re not the only one. Right now thereare rules that keep your Internet service provider from making it harder foryou to connect to a certain Web site. They can’t control what you see orcan’t see online, or what you can access online. They just provide you theability to get online. Those service providers also can’t charge the owner ofa Web site for preferential treatment. It’s something the big players on thenet like Google and eBay have been lobbying to see continued, otherwise itcould end up costing them a lot of money.

RYSSDAL: Google and eBay, though, are the companies that provide services onthe Internet. What about the companies that actually provide that kind ofactivity, the phone companies and cable companies?

NAPOLI: Yeah, exactly. Well, they’re not so hot on this idea of netneutrality. In fact, they call it “net neutering.” And it’s really confusingto muddle through both of the PR campaigns that have been going on. While theproponents of network neutrality call their campaign “Save the Internet”…


NAPOLI: …the phone companies and cable companies have been counterspinningwith their own campaign which sounds very similar, “Hands Off the Internet.”Neutering them–net neutering, keeping them from making deals and building outtechnology.

RYSSDAL: Well, and that technology is, in a way, what’s at the root of thisbecause as we become more able to do big things on the Web, like video andstuff that takes a lot of band width, I mean, that’s where all this is going.

NAPOLI: Exactly. And it’s important to point out that that’s really the cruxof this debate. That net neutrality is just one tiny piece of big fatcommunications legislation. Both sides agree that the infrastructure of thenet is being stressed and getting strained the more we go online to downloadmusic and video or to make phone calls, stuff that takes up a long of bandwidth. And the meat’s really about cable, video, how in the future we mightaccess it from our homes.

Here’s where you get really happy, Kai, not to be in Washington, because whilethe cable and phone guys are both united against net neutrality, they’re onopposite sides of another piece of the legislation. The phone guys want to beable to get into the video delivery business in a way that’s too complicatedand expensive for them right now so they can go really head to head withcable. And, of course, the cable industry isn’t so happy about that. Someopponents have been pointing out that the legislation as it’s written willmake the already skyrocketing prices for cable and net access even moreexpensive, and in doing so increase the digital divide.

RYSSDAL: Lisa, do you think this is another step toward making the Internetbasically a public utility, you know, something that’s regulated andcontrolled in some degree by government?

NAPOLI: There really is no easy way to answer this. And all of this, Kai,has been evolving over the past 10 years that public Internet use has been somassive and grown so massively. I mean, remember there use to be a whole lotof tiny Internet access providers out there…

RYSSDAL: Mm-hmm.

NAPOLI: …before different regulations put them out of business? And all ofthis technology changes radically over time as it evolves. As you point out,all the new services are rolling out. And remember, not that long ago we werebreaking up Ma Bell. Now we’re reuniting it. So even when we do have ananswer for this, it just seems to keep rolling around and rolling back andforth.

RYSSDAL: Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli. Thanks, Lisa.

NAPOLI: Thanks, Kai.

Transcription by BurrellsLuce

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