The end of the net as we know it

21 Jan 2011

ISPs are threatening to cripple websites that don't pay them first. Barry Collins fears a disastrous end to net neutrality

You flip open your laptop, click on the BBC iPlayer bookmark and press Play on the latest episode of QI. But instead of that tedious, plinky-plonky theme tune droning out of your laptop’s speakers, you’re left staring at the whirring, circular icon as the video buffers and buffers and buffers...

That’s odd. Not only have you got a new 40Mbits/sec fibre broadband connection, but you were watching a Full HD video on Sky Player just moments ago. There’s nothing wrong with your connection; it must be iPlayer. So you head to Twitter to find out if anyone else is having problems streaming Stephen Fry et al. The message that appears on your screen leaves you looking more startled than Bill Bailey. “This service isn’t supported on your broadband service. Click here to visit our social-networking partner, Facebook.”

Net neutrality? We don’t have it today

The free, unrestricted internet as we know it is under threat. Britain’s leading ISPs are attempting to construct a two-tier internet, where websites and services that are willing to pay are thrust into the “fast lane”, while those that don’t are left fighting for scraps of bandwidth or even blocked outright. They’re not so much ripping up the cherished notion of net neutrality as pouring petrol over the pieces and lighting the match. The only question is: can they get away with it?

No such thing as net neutrality

It’s worth pointing out that the concept of net neutrality – ISPs treating different types of internet traffic or content equally – is already a busted flush. “Net neutrality? We don’t have it today,” argues Andrew Heaney, executive director of strategy and regulation at TalkTalk, Britain’s second biggest ISP.

“We have an unbelievably good, differentiated network at all levels, with huge levels of widespread discrimination of traffic types. [Some consumers] buy high speed, some buy low speed; some buy a lot of capacity, some buy less; some buy unshaped traffic, some buy shaped.
“So the suggestion that – ‘oh dear, it is terrible, we might move to a two-tiered internet in the future'... well, let’s get real, we have a very multifaceted and multitiered internet today,” Heaney said.

Indeed, the major ISPs claim it would be “unthinkable” to return to an internet where every packet of data was given equal weight. “Yes, the internet of 30 years ago was one in which all data, all the bits and the packets were treated in the same way as they passed through the network,” said Simon Milner, BT’s director of group industry policy. “That was an internet that wasn’t about the internet that we have today: it wasn’t about speech, it wasn’t about video, and it certainly wasn’t about television.

“Twenty years ago, the computer scientists realised that applications would grab as much bandwidth as they needed, and therefore some tools were needed to make this network work more effectively, and that’s why traffic management techniques and guaranteed quality of service were developed in the 1990s, and then deep-packet inspection came along roughly ten years ago,” he added. “These techniques and equipment are essential for the development of the internet we see today.”

It’s interesting to note that some smaller (and, yes, more expensive) ISPs such as Zen Internet don’t employ any traffic shaping across their network, and Zen has won the PC Pro Best Broadband ISP award for the past seven years.

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