Internet Users Face Congestion Charge
Millions of people will be forced to pay a ‘congestion charge’ for sending email under plans being developed by American telephone companies to create a ‘two-tier’ internet.
In a move which campaigners warn will destroy the openness and equality of the worldwide web, the US telecommunications group AT&T is lobbying politicians to allow the development of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ internet services.
All data moving around the net is now treated equally and moves at the same speed, whether it is a personal blog or the website of a multinational corporation. But with the quantity of traffic soaring by the day, there are fears that the network could become clogged and slow down. American internet service providers argue that they should be allowed to charge customers to use a ‘fast lane’ giving their data priority.
Industry experts say a ‘two-tier internet’ could see individuals and businesses charged a penny for each email they send, or asked to pay a premium for services such as online TV or an annual subscription for constant preferential treatment. This could leave less well-off users in the ‘slow lane’ of the information superhighway with an inferior service, as emails take longer to arrive and websites work more slowly.
AT&T is urging politicians to block legislation that would prevent it creating different tiers of service. It is opposed by content providers including Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, as well as a campaign, the Save the Internet coalition, which has gathered more than a million signatures on a petition in defence of ‘net neutrality’.
David Tansley, a technology specialist at the UK consulting firm Deloitte, said: ‘The question is, how do you marshal a finite resource where demand exceeds supply? Do you just keep adding lanes to the motorway or do you look for a way of disincentivising some of the motorists? Unless you can defy the laws of physics, you have to consider a congestion charge. I think BT will do the same as the American telecoms companies.’
Tansley defended the right of firms which own the broadband ‘pipes’ needed for internet delivery to levy a charge as demand rises exponentially. ‘We treat the internet as a right, like oxygen or water, but the reality is that it’s built by commercial companies,’ he said. ‘The internet needs to grow up and become more professional.’
Among the possible outcomes is first-class email costing a penny. ‘Email is analogous to the postal service, in which you pay a bit more for first class and next day delivery,’ Tansley said. ‘It may be that “second class” email will be good enough for most users most of the time.’
‘But net neutrality doesn’t just matter to business owners. Independent voices and political groups are especially vulnerable. Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips, silencing bloggers and amplifying the big media companies. Political organising could be slowed by a handful of dominant internet providers who ask groups or candidates to pay a fee to join the “fast lane”.’