There are no traffic cops on the internet. Until now, that is. If U.S. telecommunication companies have their way, we may have internet traffic cops, patrol cars, and a full police union. The traffic cops will direct the traffic, giving preferential treatment to a select few that are able to pay for the unimpeded toll lane. Those who are able to pay the toll will get faster service.
Internet traffic is broken into packets, small data chunks, that are routed through the most efficient available channels. A single e-mail message or webpage download my comprise dozens of packets, each of which takes a different route to reach its intended destination. The receiving computer reassembles the packets into their original form, allowing the data to be read without error. Since the packets travel independently between the sender and receiver, they do not necessarily end their travels at the same time, and internet technologies account for this; in fact, this is one of the fundamental strengths of the net’s design: flexibility in packetization and transmission.
E-mail and online documents aren’t adversely affected by the routing delays that occur when their data packets are disassembled, transmitted, potentially delayed, and reassembled at the destination, because the delay is small enough to not be noticed for these media. However, when listening to digital audio or watching online video, a delayed packet or two is not only noticable, it is annoying.
A half-second delay in transmitting an e-mail message is not noticable, but a half-second latency makes voice over IP (VOIP) practically unusable. With the cost of VOIP and the bundling of free long distance services, many consumers and businesses are dropping their traditional POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) in favor of lower-cost VOIP alternatives. With rates as low as one-third of traditional POTS service, VOIP alternatives are attractive to cost-conscious buyers.
Telecommunication companies are under pressure to provided tiered service, effectively guaranteeing high-speed and unimpeded service to those who are able to pay a premium for connectivity. This may lead to latency and transmission delays for consumers and small businesses that do not subscribe to the internet toll service. Streaming audio, video, and the all-important VOIP transmissions may be disrupted and, effectively, made unusable.
But to net purists, network neutrality is a founding hallmark of the internet. Worse than transmission delays is the potential for transmission road blocks. Telecommunication providers may choose to no longer offer open routing to competitor’s networks, requiring service subscribers to pay a premium (a toll) to have data packets routed to or through a competing telecommunication company’s network, the potential host of the intended destination.
While I am willing to take the toll road, when I drive my car, I am uncomfortable being required to take it, while on the internet. I’ll be looking for the bypass that I hope will remain a freeway.
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