A brief History of the Net and Net Neutrality

Last year (was it only last year?) the technology sites were all a buzz about net neutrality. Only they never raelly defined the term; they just insisted that it would mean service providers would charge more to companies which used more data if net neutrality went away. That didn't make sense. Certainly Netflix was paying more for a collection of T1 lines than I was paying for a single DSL connection! So here's a bit of history on Net Neutrality, for perspective.

The story really begins in the 60's. The U.S. government wanted to link their computers to each other, incase WWIII broke out. They created a decentralized network, Arpanet, which eventually became the internet. Around the same time major companies began to link their computers together, and to rent time on them to smaller companies. When home computers came out in the late 70's these companies began to offer online services to the new home computer market. The services offered message boards, games, email, maybe news feeds and a few other things. Important fact 1: the internet was restricted to government and educational uses; businesses and regular people couldn't access it; that's why the online services existed. Important fact 2: These services only allowed people to communicate with other people on the same service; an AOL user couldn't send an email to a Compuserve user; a Compuserve user couldn't send an email to a Prodigy user. In the early 90's the internet was opened up for commercial use, and the online services began to offer access to it to their customers. That was great; instead of just talking on the AOL message boards you could access all of usenet; insead of just downloading games from Compuserve's server you could download games from a host of FTP servers. Giving users access to the internet at large improved the provider's services. An online service provider couldn't survive without becomming an internet service provider too. (GENie tried, and went out of buisness.) There was just one problem: the old online service providers' services were still incompatible with each other. Imagine, if you will, the confusion this would've caused as the internet grew beyond it's initial techie user base.


CUSTOMER: Hey, why can't I email my friend, 12234532 At Compuserve.net?

AOL: Because they have a Compuserve account and you're with AOL.

CUSTOMER: But he has the internet, and I have the internet, isn't that the same thing?

AOL: Yes...but you have AOL's email service and he has Compuserve's.

CUSTOMER: But dosen't my email go over the internet? I could talk to him on your message board...


AOL: Uhhhh...*click*

CUSTOMER: Hello? Hello?

In order to avoid the above, the online services agreed to allow other companies' traffic to travel over their networks without paying for the use of said networks. That's where the term Net Neutrality came from; it means that a newtork will treat traffic the same (neutraly) no matter what network it comes from. This wasn't a simple job; these online services weren't built on TCP/IP; they had their own protocols. But adopting a standard set of protocols and treating traffic equally was less expensive than answering the same questions again...and again...and again. The U.S. goverment liked this idea, and made it a law. The service providers also started charging a flat fee instead of charging for access time. After all, the online service providers only had to pay for a few servers, modems, and T1 lines. AOL didn't pay for the lines going to people's homes; those were the phone companies', and AOL's customers were already paying the phone company for them. The service providers wanted to attract customers, and moving to a flat fee helped. It was the 90's. The internet was the big new thing. Everyone would get rich off it, as long as they attracted enough customers.

Fast forward two decades. The dotcom bubble's busted. The market's consolidated; AOL and Compuserve are owned by Verizon; Prodigy's AT&T's. Everyone who's going to be on the internet is already on the internet. And the types of data running over the internet's changed too. Text-based email's passe. Videos are in, and they must be HD or better. Homepages are yesterday's news; you must log into another person's (bloated) website to tell your friends what's up. You don't download a game overnight every once in a while from Microsoft's FTP server; Microsoft downloads updates to your PC all the time. And the internet's not something the average person turns on when they need it and off when they don't; it's always there; it's always needed. The people who designed the networks didn't anticipate this level of growth. Moreover they made money from services which the internet is replacing. Who needs a phone when you have Skype? Who needs cable TV when you have Netflix? (Actually, I like my landline just fine, and faxing's easier than email. Never had cable, and from what I've seen in hotels it's no better than over-the-air TV. But that's off topic.)

So where does this leave Net Neutrality? I honestly don't know. For now it's the law. If it's repealed, folks have said it would hurt small businesses and startups. Possible, but I doubt it. The web's in the hand of walled gardens. Small businesses are opting to have a Facebook page instead of a website, and Facebook will surely pay to access every major network. Startups would probably use a major cloud hosting service, which, again, would pay extra to access the major networks. Repealing Net Neutrality would hurt smaller ISPs, like EarthLink. Most companies wouldn't pay extra to access their customers. And repealing Net Neutrality would hurt smaller hosting services, possibly forcing them offline. I don't want to say goodbye to all the interesting things on Angelfire and Tripod; they can't make that much from all those awful pop-under ads. So what happens if we leave it? The ISP's develop alternate protocols for streaming video, keep their internet service slow, and sell the sizzle of the streaming video with internet instead of the steak of faster internet. They're already doing that. So, basicly nothing, except you're cable won't have a set schedule. I guess I can live with that.

Thanks for reading all this, by the way

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