Net neutrality debate Part II: What it means to the average Joe

Confused about what the FCC's new Net neutrality proposal might mean to the average Internet user? CNET's Marguerite Reardon spells it out.

Is the Federal Communications Commission really about to destroy the Internet as we know it?

If you read the dire headlines about the so-called Net neutrality debate, you might think your Facebook-posting, Instagram-clicking, Netflix-streaming days are limited.

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Let me set you straight. There's no question that Net neutrality and the proposed rules the FCC outlined last week to protect the openness of the Internet are things every Internet user should understand. But the situation is not nearly as scary as the headlines might suggest.

Still, wrapping your brain around this highly technical issue is no easy task. To help explain what's been happening, I've created a two-part Ask Maggie column to explain Net neutrality in plain English. In Part I of the FAQ I explained what Net neutrality is, the long history behind this issue and what the FCC is currently doing about it. Part II I will explain what life in the Internet "fast lane" really means for consumers.

I hope this series of FAQs will help all my Ask Maggie readers get a better handle on what's really happening.

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Protesters lined up outside the FCC to express their concerns for an open Internet. Kevin Huang/Fight For the Future

Net neutrality Part II: Let's dive a little deeper

Can you explain what the "paid priority" or Internet "fast lane" is really about?

The idea of a fast lane, or "paid prioritization," means that traffic on your broadband connection will get preferential treatment during times of congestion.

If you think of the Internet like a highway and the packets of data are like cars, a priority service or "fast lane" would create an HOV lane for certain kinds of content during rush hour. This would allow the high priority traffic to get through the network first.

This is most important for certain delay-sensitive traffic like video or audio. When packets don't arrive on time and in the right order for video, the stream freezes, or buffers, while it waits for the packets to arrive. Sometimes packets are dropped, which causes pixelation -- where parts of the image are a jumble of squares or missing squares. Overall, it's an unpleasant experience for the viewer.

For other types of traffic, congestion isn't as much of an issue. For example, for text-based services like email or web browsing. It might mean that it takes a little longer for an email to popup in your inbox or for your Facebook page to load.

Creating a so-called "fast lane" allows broadband providers to charge companies more money to send their delay-sensitive traffic first. In other words, if Netflix paid Verizon for a priority service, the Netflix traffic would get to ride in the HOV fast lane. Other web traffic that doesn't pay a priority won't get access to this fast lane.

The rules the FCC is now considering leave the door open for broadband providers to offer this type of service. But the proposal also asks whether this type of service should even be allowed.

Is paid priority a bad thing for consumers?

Not necessarily. There are some potential benefits. Let's say Netflix paid for priority on the Verizon broadband network. This means that when the network is congested, Netflix video traffic will get priority. It will move more quickly through the network than other services that have not paid for priority.

If you are a Netflix subscriber, this means the quality of the video stream you get will likely be better during these peak periods. So instead of suffering through a lot of buffering, the video stream will come through in a timely fashion. In other words, if you're streaming Netflix's House of Cards, your video suddenly won't freeze just as Vice President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) or his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are about to make their next shady move.

If you're streaming in high-definition or eventually in ultra-high quality 4K, the quality of the video will come through at the selected quality.

What's the downside to paid priority?

Depending on how congested the connection is, it could mean other packets get stuck in traffic a bit longer. If these other packets are for text-based services like email or for web surfing, it might mean it takes longer for an email message to appear in your inbox or for a web page to fully download.

But it could also mean that other video services that haven't paid for priority may experience even more delay than if they had been given access to the "fast lane" too. So this might mean services delivering video that don't pay to have access to the priority lane may have even more buffering and more pixelation.

Let's say you're taking an online class and trying to have a video conference with your professor during class time. If the university isn't paying for priority or if you're using some peer-to-peer video transfer service that doesn't have access to the priority service, the quality of this video may be poor.

In other words, there are fewer lanes available on your network connection than there were before, which might exacerbate congestion.

So if there is a fast lane, does this mean that any other traffic on the Internet will be put in a slow lane?

Yes and no. Let me explain. The "fast lane" is really only necessary when the network is congested. So if the highway or network is wide enough and has plenty of capacity, it doesn't matter which lane it travels in or whether it has priority. All the traffic will likely move through the network as quickly as it can without hitting any bottlenecks.

But when there is congestion, the priority lane will let providers with priority access get through more quickly. They've paid to ensure their service is delivered at a high quality. Giving priority to some over others during heavy times of congestion could slow down packets on the rest of the network.

One thing to keep in mind though is that when a network is congested even without priority lanes, all traffic suffers. So whether or not there are fast lanes, your Internet experience will likely be degraded.

This is why many people today complain about poor video streaming quality at peak times.

If you've ever tried to watch a movie or TV show from Netflix or some other video provider in the evening, you know what I'm talking about. This is also true of other services like Skype. At peak times, call quality often drops off. Sometimes downloading a web page can take significantly longer if the network is overloaded.

But just like the real life highway system for cars and trucks, traffic congestion is cyclical -- eventually traffic moves along once usage subsides.

Several dozen protestors gathered outside Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Friday to protest the company's proposed net neutrality regulations.
Several dozen protestors gathered outside Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2010 to protest proposed Net neutrality regulations. James Martin/CNET

Is there an alternative to providing better quality video streaming other than creating priority lanes?

Yes, broadband operators are always working to stay ahead of network congestion. They've been investing billions of dollars over the years to upgrade their networks. This is one reason why Google and others are deploying fiber networks. With the right kind of hardware on a fiber network, they can offer near limitless capacity.

But upgrading networks or widening the highway so-to-speak, can be expensive. And broadband providers often balance the cost of upgrades with the sales they can bring in to support those services.

Another option is that instead of creating a fast lane within the open Internet, broadband providers could offer companies like Netflix a "managed service." This would essentially shunt the traffic off the public Internet onto a private link. The cable and phone companies already use these managed private links to distribute their own video services. But these dedicated lanes of traffic come at a pretty hefty price tag for the companies that subscribe to them. And these costs would likely be passed on to consumers.

Many smaller companies wouldn't likely be interested in such a high-end service. They'd rather take their chances with the best effort public Internet. But some larger companies might be interested in paying for such a service, because they could sell new services to consumers to recoup the cost.

There are rumors that Apple has discussed with Comcast the possibility of delivering a streaming video service using a managed link. This type of access would give Apple a high-quality, video streaming service without the hiccups associated with streaming video over the public Internet. At the same time, since the traffic would be shunted to a private link, it wouldn't impede or slow traffic on the public Internet.

What does it mean to turn broadband into a utility?

The discussion of how broadband should be classified really has to do with figuring out the best legal strategy for crafting rules that will stand up in court. As I mentioned in the Part I of the FAQ, the FCC's authority in implementing Net neutrality protections has been questioned twice before in court. Both times, the rules were thrown out.

Net neutrality advocates say the main reason the FCC keeps failing to defend Net neutrality in court is because broadband is not classified appropriately, which inherently restricts the FCC's authority to enforce regulation.

More than a decade ago, the FCC had a decision to make in how it regulated the infrastructure of the Internet. The choices were to either regulate the service like the traditional phone network or regulate it as an "information service," which adhered to less regulation.

After a legal battle that ended at the US Supreme Court, the FCC decided to regulate broadband as an "information service." That means broadband infrastructure isn't subject to the stringent regulation of a "telecommunications service." And it can't be treated like a common carrier or utility.

Common carriage is a centuries old legal concept that ensures members of the public retain access to fundamental services that use public rights of way. In the case of the Internet, it means the infrastructure used to deliver Web pages, video, and audio-streaming services, and all kinds of other Internet content, should be open to anyone accessing or delivering that content.

Net neutrality supporters argue the only way to enact strong Net neutrality rules that prevent things like paid priority access is to reclassify broadband traffic as a common carrier. The FCC could do this by changing the classification from a Title I "information service" to a Title II "telecommunications service."

But Chairman Wheeler doesn't believe that's necessary. He says the court has given the FCC a blueprint, which indicates the FCC can use authority under Title I, Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to justify its regulation for Net neutrality. This wouldn't require reclassifying broadband services, he claims.

Under this section, the FCC, Wheeler believes, has the authority to enact policies that protect and encourage the deployment of broadband services as outlined by the federal appeals court. Using this framework, Wheeler believes the proposal will stand up to another legal challenge.

If reclassifying broadband as "Title II" will really settle the legal question, why doesn't the FCC just do it?

If only it were that simple. There are a couple of reasons why Wheeler is hesitant to take this path.

For one, it wouldn't be an easy or clean fight. Congressional Republicans and big broadband providers, which spend millions to lobby Congress and the FCC, are already preparing for battle.

The second reason is that reclassification is likely not a slam dunk either from a legal perspective. While Net Neutrality supporters believe that reclassifying broadband would finally put an end to the legal questions surrounding the FCC's Open Internet rules, broadband providers question whether the FCC really has the authority to reclassify broadband. And they have already indicated they will take the FCC back to court of it takes this route.

What's more, it's still unclear whether reclassifying will really give the FCC the authority it needs to do things like ban paid fast lanes. Chairman Wheeler argues there's nothing specifically in Title II that prohibits broadband providers from being allowed to offer such services.

The third reason is that it's unclear what effect reclassification would truly have on Internet investment and innovation. Broadband providers argue that applying telecommunications-style regulation would harm innovation and investment.

They may have a point. For instance, Google entered the broadband market in 2012 with its 1 Gbps service all-fiber service. It offers broadband and a paid TV service. But the company has consciously avoided including telephony as part of its service bundle, because it doesn't want to deal with regulations associated with offering telephone service.

If Title II utility-style regulation is applied to broadband infrastructure, it could make building such high speed networks, which are already expensive to build, extremely unattractive. And given that more investment in such networks is what is really needed to ensure an open Internet, making such a move might defeat its purpose.

These are the questions the FCC has asked in its proposal. Now it's up to the public to have their say.

 

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