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What the heck is net neutrality and why should we give two hoots about it?

Calendar August 12, 2014 | User Paul Saunders

The following article was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of the AircraftIT Operations eJournal.

aircraft-it-logoBefore I go any further, I should like to point out that the bulk of this column was written before another bespectacled Englishman did a much better job of explaining the issue of net neutrality in a clearer and funnier way than I ever could. Check out YouTube for John Oliver’s Net Neutrality piece from HBO’s Last Week Tonight on Sunday 1st June.

Notwithstanding this I’d like to draw your attention, dear reader, to a technology issue that is dividing politics on both sides of the Atlantic. And when I say dividing politics, I mean dividing politicians between those who don’t understand what net neutrality is and those who don’t care.

In short, net neutrality is the principle that ensures a level playing field for all Internet content and services. It is a principle that the Internet has been built on to-date and means that Internet Service Providers (ISP) are required to treat all data traffic equally without any discrimination. This means that my image search for fluffy kittens is given equal network priority as your less important, work-related data request.

But new laws being debated in Europe and in North America may dismantle all this. Netflix users suffered the initial skirmishes of the net neutrality battle earlier this year when the ISP Comcast capped peer-to-peer communications resulting in a degradation of service in the US. This only came to a halt when Netflix agreed to pay a premium.

PSaunders_JulyAug20141-300x211The European Parliament voted earlier this year to prevent ISPs from implementing similar preferential tariffs for content access, or from blocking rival services, setting it on course to be enshrined by European law later this year.

However, in the US the FCC is on course to allow ISPs the freedom to dictate their own terms for content providers. Backers of the proposals say that this will bring competition and innovation to the ISP market.

You may be one of the few Internet users who has no interest in fluffy kittens or Netflix, but net neutrality also means that there is no fast lane or slow lane for all of your business needs as well. Whether you are synching new content to your EFB device, downloading your personal roster data, accessing a Cloud-based document, or carrying out any online performance calculations, this Internet traffic is given equal priority by your ISP regardless of your hardware, software or service provider choices under the current principles.

The differing stances between European and North American regulators will certainly lead to some interesting challenges for users to consider. As well as deciding on their software and hosting providers, there will ultimately be a choice of hosting locations and any resulting Internet tariffs.

One final thought is what the regional attitudes to net neutrality means to innovation and competition on a global level. Will the removal of net neutrality in the United States lead to a migration of services to Europe? Or will the promised competition that the removal of net neutrality will provide bring additional benefits to North American vendors?

And to think that the Internet used to be just “a series of tubes”…. Now its becoming much more complex, or at least that’s how I see it.

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