Not that we feel particularly sorry for them, but broadband providers have really put themselves in a bind by working so many people into a lather over net neutrality. They've made it very difficult for themselves to actually follow through on their hardline rhetoric about blocking sites or degrading traffic of content providers that won't pay them, and this heightened awareness or hyper-sensitivity to net neutrality continues to dog them. For instance, Comcast apparently plans to launch a music and video download service (via Tech Trader Daily) at the end of the month. The service will reportedly send media files to both users' computers and their set-top box, which seems like a nice feature, but it will also apparently ignore bandwidth caps on a user's connection, making downloads from the Comcast service potentially faster than those from outside download stores. Unsurprisingly, this gets labeled as potentially being in "the grey area of Net Neutrality" -- which is actually pretty accurate, since it's really not clear that Comcast is doing anything wrong. As long as Comcast is not actively blocking or degrading other services' traffic, and giving people what they pay for (meaning if somebody's paying for a 5 Mbps connection, that's what they're getting), is there a problem if their own services run faster? It doesn't really seem like it, but of course, nothing is quite so straightforward. What happens if a user is paying for a level of service on a DSL or cable line that's not fast enough for something like VoIP from an external provider, but the ISP's own service, which ignores the bandwidth cap, will run perfectly? Again, that doesn't seem like it's such a problem, because with or without the ISP's service, the external service still wouldn't be able to run on such a slow pipe -- and the pipe is slow because the consumer has chosen a particular level of service. In many ways, this is the crux of the net neutrality argument: telcos and cable operators want to be able to offer their own services over their networks, and be able to use their ownership of the network to make their service more attractive. On the face of it, this seems okay, when the only limiting factor on outside services is the level of service for which the consumer has chosen to pay. Of course, there's an easy way around that: make the only level of service they offer ridiculously slow, then ignore that cap for internal services and traffic from content providers that have paid up. While that's a possibility, again, it's a plan that would destroy a broadband ISP's business.
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