Wired world news, issues, games and gadgets Troubles over tiered Net don't you hate how cable compa nies bundle channels so you're forced to pay for channels you don't want?
I've known about the drawbacks of bundling since I was a kid. I got to watch cable every four years when the World Cup rolled around.
My dad would pick up the phone and order TSN, and days after the final he would invariably cancel the service, grumbling about being forced to pay for stuff he never watched, like MuchMusic or the Life Network.
The practice of bundling channels together like this, in tiers, was a huge boost to the business of cable television in the early 1980s.
Well, get ready, because Internet providers are considering a plan to bundle their services, too. A debate is currently raging south of the border about the ethics of bringing this practice to the Web.
Internet service providers (ISPs) want to categorize Internet sites by their worth to the consumer and how much traffic they get and charge accordingly. Local and specialized sites might be available for the basic cost of Internet access, but high-quality, high-traffic sites like Google or YouTube would be in higher-cost tiers.
If the ISPs get their way, not only will they be able to charge different fees for certain sites and online applications, but they'll also be able to demand payment from advertisers and websites for preferential treatment, or to block access to competitor sites entirely.
Currently, ISPs stream information from a website to your house in a neutral way. That is, they don't prioritize your financial transactions over a porn video; both are just bits flowing through wires.
The problem is that the video has a whole lot more bits than the transaction, and ISPs are claiming that by prioritizing information they can provide a better service to users.
On the other side of the fence are liberal advocacy groups, bloggers, academics and the operators of websites, including Google and Yahoo, who have been pushing for what they call Net neutrality.
Groups like Save the Internet claim that tiered services allow ISPs to discriminate against smaller start-up companies, which deters innovation and favours big businesses that can pay off the ISPs.
The Internet has worked so spectacularly so far because it has been essentially unrestricted and people have been able to use it as a platform to re-imagine everything from social networking (think MySpace) to commerce (eBay).
In response to the debate, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently issued four statements that amounted to a bill of rights for the Internet, allowing users to have unrestricted access to websites of their choice. However, the statement lacked any legal clout.
The telecoms moved quickly, spending millions on a government lobby, resulting in a bill passed by the House of Representatives in June called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion And Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006. The bill, with its glorious doublethink title,would give ISPs more leeway in charging what they want.
An amendment by Democratic representative Ed Markey calling for a specific ban on tiered servicing was rejected by a 269-152 vote. The debate now moves on to the Senate, where lobbying will be even more intense.
So far, the discussion doesn't seem to have caught the interest of Canadian ISPs, although Shaw Cable recently offered a $10/month "enhancement fee" on its website that promised to improve service solely for Internet telephone (VoIP) services. VoIP company Vonage has since filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), whose ruling is pending.
Before the federal Liberals imploded in January, they funded a telecommunications policy review panel that recently went public with its recommendation that the CRTC move quickly to "confirm the right of Canadian consumers to access publicly available Internet applications and content by means of all public telecommunications networks that provide access to the Internet."
Bell and Rogers haven't been nearly as aggressive in their lobbying of the Canadian government as their U.S. counterparts, but we should watch closely what happens over the next months.
Our access to the Internet just might depend on it.