Net neutrality stirs discussion

The University won’t likely be affected by potential federal changes to maintain a neutral web.

Parker Lemke

How users will access the Internet in the future, or whether they will be charged for faster content, is up in the air.

Net neutrality — the existing system in which Internet service providers offer equal speed and access to all websites, big or small — has recently come to the forefront of national debate, and University of Minnesota experts and officials have mixed opinions.

By 2018, global Internet traffic is estimated to reach a volume 64 times greater than what it was in 2005.

The Federal Communications Commission is weighing whether to impose regulations that would maintain a neutral web or loosen existing restrictions, allowing Internet service providers to charge content providers like Netflix or Amazon for faster Internet.

Although the University has a large data footprint, the FCC’s net neutrality ruling won’t significantly or directly affect the University’s networks in the short term, said Louis Hammond, University director for Data Network Services.

Hammond said the University has its own private network and contracts with multiple service providers to keep it operational, a tactic he said “keeps the competition at bay.”

Last week, the FCC’s public comment period ended after garnering 3.7 million responses. An initial analysis by the Sunlight Foundation estimated less than 1 percent of those commenters clearly opposed net neutrality.

Through its membership with the Association of American Universities, the University took a stance on the issue as the association signed a letter in July to the FCC that urged the government agency to maintain equal access to the Internet.

In the letter, library and higher education associations said they depend on an open Internet to fulfill their missions and called upon the FCC to prohibit “paid prioritization” of Internet traffic and bar public broadband providers from blocking certain content.

“Our organizations are thus extremely concerned with the current void in policies to protect the openness of the Internet,” the letter read, noting that the quality of online distance learning classes, big data research, digitized book collections and scholarly collaborations could be at stake.

“Upholding net neutrality, as it is defined now, would be the best scenario for us,” Hammond said. “I don’t think anyone should have to pay more just to get their content out or overtake someone on the slow side.”

University mathematics professor Andrew Odlyzko, who has written papers on net neutrality, said the debate has heated up and cooled down for years and is often framed in simplistic terms.

Although there is no fixed date for the FCC to act, Odlyzko said he expects it might wait until after this fall’s elections to enact new regulations to safeguard the Internet in the future.

“The Internet is becoming too important for society to just leave it to the free exercise of market power,” Odlyzko said, adding that the tendency for natural monopolies to form in the communication industry further reinforces the need for net neutrality.

According to Cisco Systems, a corporation that analyzes worldwide networking trends, the Internet will grow from an average of 5 gigabytes per capita in 2013 to 14 gigabytes per capita in 2018.

The growing demand for data in areas like video streaming and cloud traffic is adding fuel to the net neutrality fire, said Souyma Sen, an assistant professor of information and decision sciences in the Carlson School of Management.

“Every time Apple comes out with a new product with higher resolution, that basically translates into a higher number of bytes being passed over the network,” he said.

Any attempt to solve the issue must balance regulations with the market’s needs, Sen said.

Alok Gupta, chair of the Carlson School’s information and decision sciences, said he has been pondering the concept of pricing Internet traffic since 1992 and believes in exemptions to net neutrality in some cases.

“I think when it comes to high bandwidth usage, it should be priced,” Gupta said.

Allowing Internet service providers, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, to tier their Internet content and charge for faster access will encourage them to invest in higher bandwidth, Gupta said. But in exchange, he thinks regulators should make sure those companies invest proportionally in free Internet lanes for basic content.

“If people are not getting adequate access to the Internet, the value for the whole mechanism goes down,” he said. “We all use these services — this is a societal issue.”