Network neutrality is a perennially active topic, with tech blogs or the political class revisiting the issue every few months. In essence, network neutrality suggests that owners of public broadband networks cannot favor one class of network traffic over another. Proponents suggest that without these provisions, broadband operators will “downgrade” performance of content that is not a money maker for the carrier, and in some draconian cases network owners might effectively block unfavorable or unprofitable content and doom the fairly free and open nature of the internet itself.

Most IT pros and technology advocates default to supporting network neutrality provisions. Taken at face value, they seem harmless; after all, who wants some faceless company arbitrarily censoring internet traffic? The tech press has gone along with this line, with popular blogs and publications suggesting anyone who questions the noble notions of network neutrality is a corporate stooge, censorship advocate, or general nincompoop. Like most politically-loaded questions, the true answer is not so cut and dried.

The dumb pipe

For better or worse, most network operators have become purveyors of a pure commodity, with speed being the primary differentiating factor among broadband providers. With the wealth of services available, no local cable operator or national ISP can compete with the service offerings of a Google or Microsoft, and for most consumers speed and price rule the day. Ironically for more technically inclined customers a major selling point has become a lack of filtering or other “value-added” features, in a classic case of less being more. For consumers, as long as the connection is reliable and quick and offered at a fair price, it makes no difference whose name appears on the monthly bill, making broadband service the ultimate commodity.

This worked well when most broadband connections were data-focused, with the average home or business using a broadband connection in conjunction with traditional phone and video services. Now, however, many consumers and businesses are moving voice, video, and data through their broadband connections.

To err is human, to manage your network is divine

You’d likely be laughed out of the building if you suggested your IT department run a “neutral” corporate network, where every service from an inane YouTube video to a call to investors received the same priority, yet this is effectively what network neutrality asks of broadband providers. Assuming broadband has a finite capacity that is growing more slowly than broadband consumption, eventually this resource will be oversubscribed. Like any other finite resource, carriers could charge more for “priority” service, or could prioritize things like voice or video traffic that rapidly degrade in a constrained network.

The other side of the coin is that network operators could also prioritize in-house services over an external competitor, with a local cable operator prioritizing a service like Hulu that might be in their financial interests versus a service like Netflix. Network neutrality proponents will quickly flag this as borderline censorship, but on the flip side, a business model where you must carry a high-bandwidth service for free is unsustainable. In a world of neutral networks, the cost to carry a Netflix or Hulu must be sent somewhere, and we’re now seeing it appear in higher charges, or more likely, in the form of bandwidth caps. Operators make a seemingly reasonable argument that just as governments might charge a higher road tax or toll to a massive truck versus a compact car, someone needs to pick up the tab for a high-bandwidth service.

Obviously, a “neutral” network cannot coexist with high-speed, unlimited usage broadband connections, nor can consumers expect carriers to foot the bill for increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications. While network neutrality might look good on paper and produce imagery around free and uncensored information, the application is a bit less clear-cut. The doomsday scenarios of a heavily censored and profit-driven internet are just as far-fetched as a democratic yet unusably slow internet, so take a moment to consider the pros and cons of each approach and lay aside the more dogmatic positions. While the future of humanity is not likely at stake, the price you pay for broadband, and the quality of the services you’re able to run over the dumb pipe, may be.