Google and Verizon announced a joint vision for the future of net neutrality this afternoon–a plan that may wield significant influence in the ever-intensifying debate over who controls the internet and its content. The plan calls for strictly regulated openness for today’s wireline broadband–the DSL or cable internet you likely have at home. But for wireless networks (read: the future), the story is different.
For those that may be unaware of the issue, an exceedingly simplified fifteen-second net neutrality primer: The debate pits network providers (like Verizon) against companies and individuals who use said networks to deliver products and services to customers (like Google). As web applications become more central in nearly every aspect of public and private life, the network providers have grown increasingly interested in recouping the massive amounts of money they spend on building and maintaining network infrastructure by charging those companies who use an inordinate amount of bandwidth (like Google) for privileged access and delivery to customers. The internet has never worked this way, so the idea is obviously upsetting to many people, who cite the web’s inherent openness as a key, if not the key detail that has allowed it to fundamentally change all of our lives in such a powerful way, and will allow it to continue to do so at the same breakneck pace in the future.
Google and Verizon’s plan lays out specific rules to ensure that wireline internet services can not be used for any such tiered or paid access, and that all applications and services delivered over them (as long as they’re legal) can be given no preference over any other traffic. That means established bandwidth hogs like YouTube and brand new bandwidth hogs built by Russian teenagers in their bedrooms like Chat Roulette will all get equal access to your eyeballs. This will also theoretically prevent broadband providers from intentionally limiting the speed of all BitTorrent traffic, something they’ve shown interest in doing in the past to avoid clogging their network with copyrighted materials; the protocol can just as easily be used legally.
But what has net neutrality activists worried–in my opinion, rightly so–is that in the new plan, almost none of these protections apply to wireless networks. Nor do they apply to a more ambiguously defined category of “additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the Internet access and video services (such as Verizon’s FIOS TV)” using current wireline networks.
But it’s the wireless exemption that strikes the most worry in the hearts of free-internet proponents. As anyone watching the future of telecommunications and the internet will tell you, wireless web access will almost certainly one day overtake traditional wired networks as most people’s primary means of getting online. With the last five years’ explosion of smartphone usage, we’re already watching this happen. Heck, if your home is in a good coverage area, it’s entirely feasible today to scrap your monthly cable or DSL broadband services for something like a wireless MiFi hotspot from Verizon or Sprint for all but the most intensive surfing.
Should Google and Verizon’s suggested plan be implemented, whoever beams the signal to your MiFi hotspot can shape the traffic of the web however they choose. This means blocking high-bandwidth sites like YouTube, giving preference to one streaming service over another (like only allowing Netflix’s Watch Instantly vs. any other movie-streaming service), or blocking certain protocols like BitTorrent altogether.
Their reasoning for this proviso is that current-generation wireless networks are exceedingly fragile to maintain and expensive to build. No one’s debating that–just ask anyone who uses an iPhone on AT&T in San Francisco or New York City. But why many see this as shortsighted is because as technology marches on, wireless broadband bandwidth will become a less precious commodity. Remember when we all exclusively used our phone lines to access the internet? It’s pretty easy to see that if we were all still connecting with 28.8 modems, the internet wouldn’t be what it is today. And the Verizons and the AT&Ts of the world wouldn’t have to be fighting nearly as hard to maintain control of their networks at the expense of good old fashioned voice telephone calls.
But what happened was, DSL and fiber optic cable technologies sprung up. That shifted the burden and changed the issue from one of maintaining century-old copper wiring to building and maintaining satellite links and fiber optic cables with exponentially more capacity. Still a burden, yes, but a completely new and different one. The wireless space could change just as quickly. We could, one day, be swimming in more wireless bandwidth than we currently know what to do with.
The plan does acknowledges the industry’s potential for rapid change, calling for the Government Accountability office to “report to Congress annually on developments in the wireless broadband marketplace, and whether or not current policies are working to protect consumers.”
Which is all well and good. But this isn’t 2005. Some predict wireless access to significantly overtake wired networks in as little as five years. And if that happens, and the core philosophies of Google and Verizon’s policy proposal make it into whatever net neutrality legislation we may soon see, the internet could be a very different place.
You can read Google and Verizon’s own take on the plan on Google’s Public Policy blog here, which also links to the official two-page policy proposal.