The internet has been used to level the playing field in all industries, including the ones within it.  Online, everyone is equal due to network neutrality; that is, there is no preferential treatment given to any traffic, but that may change in 2009.

Google has recently approached major cable and telephone operators proposing a “fast lane” for its own content and companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are listening.  While simply browsing the web and instant messaging with friends does use some bandwidth – the information lines that the internet transfers data on – the growing trend in online video has seen an explosion in traffic usage.  Videos in particular are very large media files, typically in the hundreds of megabytes, or gigabytes for full length movies.

Network carriers picked up the nick name of “dumbpipes” due to their neutrality and non interference with internet traffic, but now they need to upgrade their systems, and possibly offset some costs for the drop in land line usage.  Much like how the U.S. infrastructure is in need of repair from bigger cars and heavier trucks, and more of them.

Allowing companies to pay for fast lane treatment could choke off competition, and some say reduce the freedom of speech.  A diverse group from Amazon.com to the Christian Coalition and Barack Obama has stood behind neutrality, but some minds are changing.   Major phone companies who are maintaining and re-building traffic networks like AT&T and Verizon are creating their own video sites which they can give preferential treatment. San Antonio is one of several metros that Verizon has invested millions of dollars by laying new fiber optics for increased speed, and some Verizon insiders have said they want to deliver movies right into the house network – how is Steve Jobs feeling about this?

Issue for Startups:
If legislation was passed that would allow traffic networks to sell “tiered treatment”, smaller companies and startups would be faced with major problems, and would confront new factors in their business plan – internet tier traffic fees, which could harm onetime startups that were low on cash but big on ideas, like Digg or Yelp.

Affects to SEO:
Usability studies show that internet users enjoy quick load times and often abandon websites which take too long to load, typically the site owners fault for using slow servers.  Some Search Engine Optimization experts admit that this could affect rankings for millions of websites that don’t have big bucks to pay a toll for the “Fast Lane.”

With AT&T’s acquisition of Bell South, the FCC made the company postpone their plans for a fast lane for 30 months, which will expire in the middle of 2009.  Google sees that even they could be affected and have begun approaching companies with a plan that already has a name, so you know this is very real.  Known internally as OpenEdge, the program places Google servers within the networks of service providers.  MSN and Yahoo! are in on it too, after the Wall Street Journal reported that they have quietly backed away from a coalition (and a letter to Congress in 2006) that was formed to protect network neutrality.

Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and one time supporter of equal network treatment, proclaims that content providers should be able to pay for faster service, and analogizes it with the U.S. Postal System’s priority versus standard mail.  Professor Lessig and Barack Obama have known eachother since the days teaching law at the University of Chicago, and Lessig has been mentioned as a candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission that regulates the telecommunications industry.

Who Will Stand Behind the Little Guy?
It seems that the search giants who once spread the cry of free speech, and integrity of search results are finding their Achilles heel exposed and talking about what can be done to save their own skins, and doing so as quietly as possible.  So if the “fathers” of internet equality won’t fight for the rest of us, who will?

Read Google’s response to a Wall Street Journal article in Wired.

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