new article: Why is the Internet so slow?

The great folks over at the Community Media Workshop asked me to write the below introduction to Net Neutrality and why neighborhood bloggers / journalists should care about it for their latest report, “Realizing Potential: What Chicago’s Online Innovators Need”. This is a follow-up to last year’s report, “The NEW news: The Journalism We Want and Need”, to which I also contributed an article. Enjoy.

Imagine if, when shopping for appliances, only GE microwaves could nuke your food on high power while other brands could only operate at 75 percent. Or, imagine if only calls from certain telemarketers rang through to your mobile phone while your friends had to pay an extra, per-call fee in order to reach you. Sounds crazy, right?

Unfortunately, there are a growing number of major corporations lobbying for just this approach to data on the internet.

Telephone and power lines are, in a word, dumb. They don’t pay attention to who is using them for what purpose or what devices they are connected to, only that the user has paid the bill. Until very recently, the internet operated in much the same manner; while your specific connection speed might vary based on your individual plan, the actual content that came to your device and the specific make/model of your computer, phone, radio or car didn’t matter. All websites loaded at (roughly) the same speed and you have been free to connect any device to the web. This is the core tenet of net neutrality: your connection to the internet should be ‘dumb’ and deliver whatever content you request to whatever device you use at the same speed, regardless of what the content is.

But this principle has recently been called into question by both the courts and major corporations. In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to regulate an internet provider’s network management practices and policies; in short, the FCC can’t enforce regulations to protect network neutrality.

Then, in August, Google and Verizon released “A Joint Policy Proposal for an Open Internet,” laying out a set of seven principles they believe should guide federal regulation. In their proposal, there is a clear distinction between the rules for “wireline” and “wireless” services. While wired broadband access (such as through a cable modem or an office’s network) would be governed by a weakened set of network neutrality principles, wireless broadband—which includes every connection to the web from a mobile phone—would only be required to disclose the exact nature of their services and would be allowed to control how fast various services were able to communicate data back and forth. Under their proposal, Verizon would be able to allow, for example, USA Today to display stories three times as fast as the Sun-Times in a mobile web browser, for the right price.

University of Illinois at Chicago Prof. Karen Mossberger’s research highlights the importance of network neutrality over wireless broadband for hyperlocal journalists in Chicago. In her “Digital Excellence in Chicago” report for the City of Chicago, she writes, “Over a third of Chicago residents have accessed the internet through some type of wireless device, and the concentration of such use among residents under 30 suggests that this trend is likely to increase in the future, especially with advances in technology.”

As the Workshop’s NEW News report suggests, the vast majority of Chicago’s neighborhood news sources are passion projects and few are generating much revenue. And, as we all know from our own internet use, speed is everything: waiting too long for a page to load simply means you will look elsewhere for the information. If wireless broadband providers are allowed to require that hyperlocal journalists pay for top-tier access—fees that many likely cannot afford—the inevitable result will be fewer sources for neighborhood news.

You can download CMW’s full report here (.pdf).

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