It turns out that our layman's understanding of how the internet works — a worldwide web of computers linked on a free, open network — is a bit of a fairy tale. The truth is that those fast lanes demonized by net neutrality advocates already exist. Highly successful and high-traffic web companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix already pay for direct access — inside access, in some cases — to internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon [source: McMillan].
There are two types of fast lanes that exist today [source: McMillan]:
- Peering – Most web companies need to send their data across the broader internet backbone (the cables and datacenters operated by companies around the world) before it arrives at an ISP and is served to individual users. Wealthier companies can pay ISPs for a direct connection called peering that bypasses the internet backbone and speeds data transfers.
- Content Delivery Network – Ever wonder how Google can serve up search results so quickly? The search giant pays for the privilege to set up its own servers inside the bowels of ISPs so it can deliver the most popular searches and images even faster.
If web companies can already pay ISPs for preferential treatment, then why are net neutrality advocates making such a stink about the FCC's proposed rule change? First off, the concern is for the last mile, the connection between an ISP and a consumer's home, which has been regulated differently from the connection between a web company and an ISP [source: Nagesh]. The other issue is the monopolies enjoyed by American ISPs and their chilling effect on competition. We'll dive into that next.