Experts debate merits of tiered Net traffic

Bill McCloskey and Jon Taplin take differing positions on Net neutrality

Should Congress enact a law that prevents telecommunications companies from charging more based on the kind of traffic they are distributing? What is at stake for enterprises that rely on the Internet? InfoWorld asked folks on either side of the debate.

Jon Taplin is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert in international communication management and digital media.

Bill McCloskey is the Washington-based director of media relations at BellSouth and a former assistant managing editor at the Associated Press.

InfoWorld: Net neutrality is widely portrayed as an assault on the core principles of the Internet. But could there be advantages to a tiered Internet model?

Bill McCloskey: A startup trying to compete with Google Video or Yahoo Video could pay a few pennies over their basic connection fee to turbocharge the connection to the viewer for the period of time that the video is being fed and have a competitive advantage over any video service that was satisfied to offer their customer today’s “best effort” connection. We’ve all seen pixilated video feeds caused when it is “rush hour” on the Web. Many customers are not satisfied with that kind of service.

I’ll start by agreeing totally with Bill that a customer is free to pick the speed that is needed and pay for what they need. I think there should be tiered pricing [at the consumer level]. …Where the Net neutrality debate gets dicey is the idea that the sites themselves ... should pay an extra tax for “getting in the fast lane.”

Jon Taplin:

The best possible solution is for any of the dominant carriers to reserve at least 1.5Mbps of free, unfettered IP service that they promise not to filter, degrade, or otherwise impair. I don’t think anyone would begrudge them the ability to segment their bandwidth for special operations as long as a small maker of documentaries still had a chance to sell films as a download directly to the consumer over an unfiltered IP network.

As a society, we have all benefited from the open standards and open networks of an Internet that was built with our taxpayer dollars. … As we fall to 16th in the world in broadband diffusion, let’s not fall further behind by corrupting the basic “end to end” architecture that the Internet pioneers so brilliantly crafted.

BellSouth has already promised not to filter, degrade, or impair any service at any speed. If Jonathan the consumer wants to pay the few pennies for uninterrupted movie downloads — probably fewer pennies for a single song download — fine. We’re agnostic on who purchases our service. But if Jonathan the musician wants to make his product more available for people to download and pays that “turbocharge” fee, then he is likely to get more customers, assuming he’s selling his product.


IW: Aren’t businesses and consumers already paying a fee for premium Internet access? Wouldn’t this be a new fee that you could collect in return for doing nothing?

BM: The service will be available for anyone who needs it, on demand. If the Net is not crowded at the hour you are proposing to watch a video, play a game, make a VoIP call — or who knows what they’ll invent next — then you don’t need to use it. What people are paying now is for access to the Internet as we have it today, not the newer, better, faster Internet that must be built — at significant expense — to handle the growing amount of traffic.

JT: As to telco ROI, it depends on adding value. We all know that there are thousands of miles of dark fiber crisscrossing our country. ... The major investment has already been made.

I don’t think [neutrality] is that hard to achieve from a regulatory perspective. A little transparency on the part of the network providers as to what bit rate I am actually getting would be helpful. The benefit for the big business customer is that high-speed data connectivity is still a fairly vibrant marketplace where Verizon Business and AT&T and Qwest still compete in overlapping markets. Customer costs will continue to fall just because of the aforementioned glut of dark fiber from the late ’90s.