Without 'Net neutrality,' will consumers pay twice?

If some telecommunications carriers get their way, consumers could end up handing over more for the broadband content and services they use.

The debate over whether broadband providers should be allowed to prioritize the traffic they carry and to charge companies to ship data via their networks is about to get its second airing in Washington.

On Tuesday the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation is holding a hearing to discuss the issue. Companies such as Amazon.com, eBay, Google and Microsoft are pushing congressional leaders to draft legislation that calls for "network neutrality," which would bar phone companies and cable operators from picking favorites.

The carriers, not surprisingly, strongly oppose any legislation that would limit their ability to charge for carrying content on their network. They believe that a so-called tiered service model will let them deliver new services, such as video, more efficiently and more cheaply to consumers.

No broadband provider at this point has started charging Internet companies for delivering content. And so far, none of them has proposed outright blocking of traffic. But some experts fear that if broadband providers are given free rein, they could impose Internet traffic restrictions: The customers of companies that refuse to pay for premium network access will have such poor quality service, consumers will be forced to go elsewhere.

In the end, these experts say, this will lead to fewer choices for consumers. They also say it will increase the cost of delivering those services and content.

"It seems to me that if broadband operators are charging Google and Amazon for the use of their network, then those costs will automatically get passed on to consumers," said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, a Beltway advocacy group. "And ultimately that will lead to higher prices for consumers."

To understand how consumers will be affected by broadband providers prioritizing and charging fees for delivering applications and content, one first has to understand how the Internet works.

Content that travels over the Internet is chopped into "packets." The Internet is designed so that these packets can travel through multiple paths to get to their destination. Some packets go one way while others go a different way. Then they're reassembled at the end.

While the packets travel through the network, they can face congestion and get slowed down. They can be dropped, forcing the sender to resend them. Sometimes this seemingly haphazard approach causes delays. It's usually not a big deal for most data applications, such as e-mail. But for time-sensitive data, like telephony or video, delays can degrade the user's experience.

As broadband providers, AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon Communications can control the flow of traffic in their network. They can give certain packets priority in the network over other packets, helping guarantee a better user experience.

Broadband providers reject the notion that prioritizing some traffic will inherently hurt the performance of nonprioritized traffic. In fact, they argue the opposite will happen because prioritizing some traffic is like opening an "express lane" on the highway, which ultimately keeps all traffic flowing.

"We are building a fifth lane on a four-lane highway," said Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for AT&T. "If you offer a high-occupancy

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