Net neutrality: an introduction for business
Net neutrality: If you regularly read the business press, you may have noticed this term popping up in articles again and again. But what does it actually mean? And why should it matter to you and your business?
Net neutrality (or network neutrality) is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. That means whether it’s from iPlayer, your business blog, video-conferencing or any other source, you can’t be discriminated against in either price or bandwidth throttling.
It also prevents ISPs or governments from placing restrictions on what you choose to access. The principles of net neutrality give you the freedom to view whichever sites or content you want, using any equipment you choose.
Has it already begun?
To some extent ISPs already restrict connectivity to their customers in a number of ways. Certain ISPs use traffic shaping to limit peer to peer data moving over their networks, others put a premium on bandwidth during working hours, while some service providers give voice or video traffic priority for their business customers ensuring Quality of Service (QoS). With BT and Virgin now delivering television via IP, it begs the question: when will we see connectivity packages that are optimised for delivering video?
It’ll all end in tiers
So what’s the problem? Well, thankfully not much at the moment, but internet traffic is growing and broadband providers are doing everything they can to keep costs low and stay competitive.
Currently businesses pay their ISP for the connectivity they require (depending on what’s available in that location), be it Broadband or FTTC the speed of delivery is only restricted by the type of connection. With a tiered system businesses would pay a premium for a faster connection, while those unable to pay the premium would get suffer a slower connection. All this has a key business impact; if your competitors are paying more to get a faster connection, you’ll be forced to upgrade and ultimately, the telcos will win!
Furthermore, broadband providers could sign lucrative contracts and exclusive agreements with favoured customers such as search engines. This would mean that your choice of ISP may to some extent determine the quality of your connection to certain sites, forcing you to choose them over other options.
What about SMEs?
One of the best things about the internet is how it has put small businesses on an equal level with big businesses, something that would have been impossible to achieve in the past. Without net neutrality we could see businesses forced backwards and, again, the greatest rewards saved for those with the deepest pockets.
Today many small businesses exist solely online. So changes to the way the network is regulated can and will directly affect their success and even their livelihood.
What are the precedents?
Last month the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to write the concept of network neutrality into national law, protecting local businesses. Mobile phone operators in particular are now banned from blocking or charging consumers extra for using internet based communications services.
In the UK, things aren’t quite so advanced- Ofcom published a paper last year designed to promote debate on network traffic management. And it is expected that Ofcom will clarify its stance on net neutrality some time in 2011. We’ll keep our eyes peeled, but I wouldn’t hold your breath!
We have also conducted our own Powernet research that shows UK businesses overwhelmingly support net neutrality. Only 19% believe that ISPs should be allowed to tier traffic and just 17% would be willing to pay for a top tier service.
So who chooses what your business does online? Well at the moment, you do, but in the future, without Government backing for net neutrality, things might not be so easy.
For a great visual demonstration of net neutrality click here