Google and Verizon have gone public with a joint policy framework that will have enormous ramifications for the future of the Internet as we know it. You can read it here (PDF).
First: Who are the players? Verizon is, among many other things, owner of 140 million land lines across the United States. These are the wires that carry the Internet in its many billions of bits to our DSL modems and then into our wireless routers and then into our netbooks and iPhones and all the other gadgets we have sitting around the house.
Google is the producer of much of the content that makes up those bits. It's the world's number one Web site and the world's most popular search engine for the foreseeable future. It's also the owner of YouTube and, as such, sends a lot of data (in the form of YouTube videos) out across Verizon's wires. This is data for which Verizon would like to charge somebody. The question of weather a network owner like Verizon can charge (or, more specifically, deny or slow) data-rich content is what's called the Net Neutrality debate.
Neutrality proponents say that if you pay your bill to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), you should be able to use the Internet however you want, whether it's to send tiny 20 byte text messages or upload 200 megabyte YouTube videos. Antagonists contend--in the words of the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens--"the Internet is not just something you dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes."
Because data takes up bandwidth (tube space), ISPs like Verizon should be able to charge people differently depending on how much data a user puts onto or downloads from the Internet. This is one reason why Google is working to build its own high speed network.
Today, with this proposal, Google and Verizon called something of a truce, though neither has called it a deal. For a more detailed account of the broad outlines, I recommend this great Endgadget post.
On the one hand, the agreement says that ISPs can't block lawful traffic and can't discriminate against traffic on the basis of size. But that equates to little more than a Pyrrhic victory for neutrality proponents because wireless providers are excused from those provisions. And wireless is the future.
Reaction among neutrality advocates was immediate. Free Press managing director Criag Aaron, writing on Huffington Post, remarked: "Real Net Neutrality means that Internet service providers can't discriminate between different kinds of online content and applications. It guarantees a level playing field for all Web sites and Internet technologies. It's what makes sure the next Google, out there in a garage somewhere, has just as good a chance as any giant corporate behemoth to find its audience and thrive online. What Google and Verizon are proposing is fake Net Neutrality."
Robert Atkinson, a member of WFS and director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, took a more supportive stance. He heralds the joint proposal as an important step forward in improving relations between ISPs, content companies, and users:
"A new generation of applications is emerging on the Internet that will ultimately require advanced treatment by network operators. Commercial Internet users have access to a wide array of service options today that they use to ensure that their most advanced applications, such as high-definition video conferencing, receive priority over more traditional applications such as web surfing. This is a constructive practice with considerable consumer benefit when implemented properly."
Still others argue that the problem lies not in today's joint proposal but in Verizon, which has lobbied and petitioned extensively to close off its copper network to competitors, thus limiting potential competition. This, according to groups like Public Knowledge, is one reason why U.S. broadband speed was a median 5 megabits per second (Mbps) in 2007 while median download speeds were 63 Mpbs in Japan, and 49 Mpbs in South Korea. In other countries, there's more robust competition among ISPs.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in today's announcement is that it further legitimizes Verizon's position as defacto MaBell of the Internet Age.
Why does this matter for the future?
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (U.S. stimulus bill) allocates $7.2 billion to support the development of broadband capabilities across the United States and an additional $8 billion may make it out of Washington by the end of this year. As I originally wrote for the July-August 2009 Futurist, expanded broadband will allow for a much faster and richer Internet-surfing experience, more lifelike teleconferencing, and the outsourcing of more services to the Web. (Check out: “The Need for Speed: The Importance of Next-Generation Broadband Networks” from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation ITIF).
John D’Ambrosia of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has forecast that Ethernet speeds will be in the terabit range (one trillion bits per second) by 2015. Greater bandwidth in more places is essential to bringing the full capabilities of the Internet, particularly live, streaming video services, to more people. Live videoconferencing is already changing education, work, and the delivery of medicine.
It would allow millions around the world to better telecommute, decreasing traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions and giving people more time to spend with their loved ones. Employers would also be able to look for computer-savvy workers in more places. Faster Internet speeds--both wireless and wired--are essential to the future prosperity of the United States.
The future is too important to be left up to Verizon and Google alone.
About the author: Patrick Tucker is the senior editor of THE FUTURIST magazine and director of communications for the World Future Society