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The Future of Net Neutrality and What it Means for All of Us

By Edited Jan 18, 2015 2 0
Net Neutrality Debate
Credit: Opensource

We take the internet for granted now, but I remember when I was first exposed to it in 1994 while working for a company.  It was still primitive at that time and we were accessing it from “green screen” terminals in the office. No web pages, just text data on a screen.

There was never a grand plan to create the internet we know today. It actually grew through random events and rather chaotically over the decades beginning in the late 60s.

During the 1960s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Government funded several advanced computer technology projects.[1] One of the continuing issues was the inability to run software on multiple computers at once.[1] At the time, anyone wishing to use a program had to travel to that location and use it on a single computer, which was as big as a house by the way.

Actually, there was another tedious  way: connecting to other computers via modems and telephone lines, but it was incredibly slow and error prone.  Remember the days of the early modern internet in the mid 90s when web pages would paint slowly via AOL dial-up? Imagine trying to run a software program that was taking inputs and calculating data.

One of the projects DARPA commissioned was the development of a nationwide computer network that would link major research centers, usually universities, receiving DARPA funding, The first wide area network was born.[1]

This gave researchers access to software at other sites  via a terminal and became known as ARPANET.[2] At this point, you are probably thinking this is starting to sound a little bit like the story line in the Terminator franchise.

Soon, the military wanted a private network so DARPA was commissioned to create a sister network called MILNET.[3]  However, users of ARPANET and MILNET wanted to share information between networks so DARPA created a protocol to transfer data across network called Internet Protocol. TCP/IP soon became the standard for all data communications across the internet.

Next, other business and professional networks wanted in on the action and the ability to connect to ARPANET in order to deal with other networks and colleagues in their field.  With time, networks began connecting to each other all over the world. The result was an early, more simplistic, and certainly slower version of the internet we know today.

As the internet grew, DARPA wanted no part in managing the growing beast so they created the Internet Society.

How Messages are Transmitted via the Internet

Most people have no clue how information is transmitted over the internet. They simply click a mouse and it leaves their world. The reality is that whatever information that is transmitted over the net is sent in packets and can take very different routes to arrive there. But amazingly, it does. Well, at least most of the time.

The internet consists of many different networks in different parts of the world. Special switches called routers link the networks together. As a result, any internet host can send

Net Neutrality Rules
messages called IP datagrams to any other host as if they were on a single network.

The key to the Internet’s ability to link the millions and millions of hosts around the world together is a universal system of host addresses called IP numbers, or IP addresses.[4]

Each host on the internet has a unique IP number which you can think of as its telephone number. When one host wants to send an IP datagram to another, it puts the target host’s IP number in the destination field of the datagram. The sender then transmits the message to a router. If the route cannot deliver the message itself, it passes the message to another router closer to the location of the target host.[4] Eventually a router delivers the datagram to the target host.

Internet host address come in two forms: Ip number and IP names.

IP numbers consist of 4 sets of numbers separated by periods, sometimes followed by a port address which refers to a specific connection within the host.[4]

Although the IP numbers always work, imagine trying to remember all of those numbers. So a system was developed to assign IP names to IP numbers.[4] Special hosts on the internet called domain name system hosts keep a list of all IP numbers and associated IP names.  If you know one, you can find the other.

Although built for Telnet service, email soon followed when researchers discovered how to send messages electronically in packets.  Email soon took over the ARPANET and it was perfected over the years until a process called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) was created, which we still use today. Now email dominates the number of messages transmitted on the internet.

Net Neutrality Law
Credit: Opensource

Managing the Internet - Net Neutrality Debate

While the Internet Society may have managed the internet early on, it would be a mistake to say that any governing body actually controls it especially decades later after its creation. The biggest issue going on right now involving the net is the erosion of something called Net Neutrality. While the issues is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, here is the condensed "net neutrality for dummies" explanation.

In 2010, the FCC came up with rules to prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing certain user or business connections to online content and apps such as Pandora or services such as Netflix. What that meant was that the internet could not be effectively controlled by a few powerful phone and cable companies by favoring one over the other, essentially deciding who would get preferential treatment based on some arbitrary decision or agreements (some say payoffs) signed for greater access.

The battle may already be over though. In January of 2014, a Federal court struck down the FCC’s “Open Internet” rules.[5]

Now the FCC must come up with new regulations to accomplish the same goal, yet withstand legal challenges. There is even a net neutrality bill bouncing around the halls of Congress.

However, some see it as inevitable that some sort of tiered access with relevant pricing will emerge within the next decade.

Net Neutrality Rules

The fear is that without Net Neutrality, ISPs will start charging certain users more based on how much data is used. The higher data speeds would go to the highest bidder. To a certain extent, they are already doing this, penalizing heavy downloaders of movies and other large content by charging them more per month if they exceed a threshold. But more importantly, opponents fear this will stifle innovation and economic activity by the so called gatekeepers favoring their own products over competing ones.

After all, if Comcast has a service or app, and someone produces a competing one, which do you think Comcast is going to favor?

From the ISPs’ point of view, they feel like they are investing in the backbone that transports all of this data, and other companies like Netflix, are getting a free ride, not having to deal with the large maintenance costs of building out the infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, last month Netflix signed an exclusive agreement with Comcast for direct access.

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Summary

We have come a long ways since the days of green screen terminals and archaic DOS commands. If you ever want to go down memory lane, search for some of the more popular websites and see how they looked when they launched in 1995 or 1996. They were all very simple, but then again they had to be because we were all still on dial-up. Now websites are much more robust with faster speeds available and even dual versions for mobile users.

But what started as a way for college professors to communicate with each other has morphed into the greatest wealth creator and driver of technology the world has ever known.

It has been almost 20 years since the internet made its way into most of our homes, and now we are on an even greater accelerated pace. Think about the changes in our lives over the last 20 years, then imagine what life is going to look like in 2034.

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Bibliography

  1. "DARPA." WikiPedia. 28/12/2014 <Web >
  2. "How ARPANET Works." How Stuff Works. 28/12/2014 <Web >
  3. "MILNET." Wikipedia. 28/12/2014 <Web >
  4. "How the Internet Works." How Stuff Works. 28/12/2014 <Web >
  5. "Court strikes down net neutrality rules." CNN. 28/12/2014 <Web >

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