Shouldn't we all have fast fibre optic connections? (Image: James Laurence Stewart on Flickr.)
If you pay attention to the business or technology press, you may have noticed the term ‘net neutrality' popping up in articles. But what does it actually mean? And why should it matter to you and your business?
Net neutrality (or network neutrality) is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. It's how the internet works at the moment: no matter whether internet traffic is from the BBC iPlayer, your business blog, a video-conferencing service or any other source, it isn't discriminated against.
Network providers can't charge more to transfer it, or prioritise certain types of internet traffic over others.
Net neutrality also prevents internet service providers (ISPs) and governments from restricting what you choose to access. It gives you the freedom to view whichever sites or content you want, using any equipment you choose.
The threat to net neutrality
To some extent, ISPs already restrict internet connectivity to their customers. Some perform ‘traffic shaping' to limit the use of file sharing services. Others give voice and video traffic priority to make sure calls don't break up.
So what's the problem? Well, thankfully not much at the moment, but internet traffic is growing and broadband providers are doing everything they can to keep costs low and stay competitive.
Currently businesses pay their ISP for the internet connection they require (depending on what's available in that location). Whether it's broadband over a standard phone line or a fast fibre optic connection, the speed is only restricted by the type of connection and the package they choose.
But the end of net neutrality could see broadband providers signing lucrative contracts and exclusive agreements with favoured customers such as search engines. This would mean that your choice of ISP could determine the quality of your connection to certain websites, forcing you to choose them over other options.
What about your business?
One of the best things about the internet is how it has put small businesses on an equal footing with bigger competitors. The website for a local greengrocer will load just as fast as a supermarket's website.
But without net neutrality, that could change. With its deep pockets, the supermarket could pay broadband providers to deliver its website faster, forcing its competitors backwards. The greatest rewards would only be available to those with the most to spend.
Today, many small businesses exist only online. So changes to the way the network is regulated will directly affect their success and even their livelihood.
Net neutrality in law
Last month the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to write the concept of network neutrality into national law. Mobile phone operators in particular are now banned from blocking or charging consumers extra for using internet-based communications services like Skype.
In the UK, things aren't quite so advanced. Ofcom published a paper last year designed to promote debate on network traffic management. And the telecoms regulator is expect to clarify its stance on net neutrality sometime in this year. We'll keep our eyes peeled, but I wouldn't hold your breath!
We have also conducted our own Powernet research that shows UK businesses overwhelmingly support net neutrality. Only 19% believe that ISPs should be allowed to treat different types of traffic in different ways, and just 17% would be willing to pay for a top tier service.
So who chooses what your business does online? Well at the moment, you do, but in the future, things might not be so easy. That's why we need government backing for net neutrality.