What's Net Neutrality, and Why Should You Care?

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One of the hot issues discussed during the midterm elections was whether to continue to protect the current status quo of net neutrality. Under net neutrality, all content, users and devices are treated the same by broadband carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner. That means that streaming video, for example, is delivered to your computer at the same speed and cost as a no-frills e-mail.

Net neutrality also means that carriers can't tack on an extra cost for heavy users; everyone can stream and download as much content as they like. And there are no penalty fees attached to visiting different categories of websites. Devices share and share alike; carriers treat a smart phone no differently than a desktop .

Unlimited access for one price has been the rule of the road on the Internet, but this summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the traffic cop of all communications, proposed to reclassify the transmission of data as a telecommunications service . Should this proposal go into effect, the FCC could directly regulate the Internet. The courts blocked the FCC, but the agency is preparing another attempt to gain control of the net.

Not surprisingly, the carriers would like to have the right to set different pricing levels based on usage especially for rapidly growing wireless broadband service, which is expensive to roll out and particularly susceptible to overload. One idea popular among carriers is providing faster speeds to those willing to fork over higher transmission fees.

On the other hand, there is concern that small businesses could suffer without net neutrality. A tiered Internet would also make it easier for content streams from corporate giants to rule the Web; without net neutrality, innovative startups like Craigslist and Google might not ever have seen enough traffic to get off the ground.

A lot is at stake, clearly, and total net neutrality might be near its end: All 95 of the candidates for seats in the House and Senate who supported net neutrality lost in the midterm elections.

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