The Obama administration recently proposed rules that would prevent Internet service providers from slowing the connections of certain companies and competitors -- a move that might prove to be an economic boon for tech startups and app developers.
Under the new "net neutrality" regulations, phone and cable giants such as AT&T and Comcast would have to allow equal amounts of Internet access to users. Currently, such companies charge premiums for access to larger allocations of bandwidth, and there have been cases of companies restricting the use of bandwidth-draining applications altogether. Earlier this year, AT&T was embroiled in controversy for banning Skype's Internet-phone service for the iPhone, and Apple also met protest for apparently rejecting Google Voice.
The Federal Communications Commission, however, has deemed the practice unfair to those who wish to use what might be considered data-intensive programs and technologies, opening the gateway for smaller tech companies to expand their products -- something David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, says has been long overdue.
"Overall, the amazing thing the Internet has done is enable everyone to post whatever they want and not have built into the Internet itself any preferences for one type of service over another," says Weinberger.
"You can imagine a big search engine doing a deal where their service is incredibly fast for the user," he says, "But somebody in a garage might come up with a great idea for a better search service but would not able to compete with the faster delivery of the larger service."
Sanjay Raman, co-founder of fledgling website Howcast, which broadcasts such how-to videos as "Surviving Unemployment" and "Treating a Jellyfish Sting," says the company would benefit from new bandwidth regulations in a number of ways, including delivering better-quality content to users. When the company was developing its first iPhone application, Raman says he and his team were denied several times because of bandwidth constraints that AT&T was "vague" about.
"It took us several months" to get the iPhone app cleared, says Raman. "We had to downgrade the quality of the video. In an ideal world, if we had the ability to serve high quality streams, we'd give the user the choice to do that."
Raman says Howcast, which streams nearly 500,000 videos a day, admits the technology is data-intensive, and therefore the company does pay a premium for more bandwidth. While there is currently no provision in the proposal to nix those premiums, sites like Howcast could avoid streaming video issues such as buffering wait time.
"If things were opened up, where it makes a difference for us is that we can deliver a better user experience to our customers," says Raman.
The regulations have been met with resistance from the service providers, as well as lawmakers. David Cohen, executive vice president of broadband at Comcast, blogged that the FCC may be moving too quickly in its policing efforts, and officials should "determine whether there are actual and substantial problems" that even require new rules. Others argue that bandwidth allocation is a vital process in managing network congestion.
"The answer is, yeah, you can manage," says Weinberger at the Berkman Center. "But you can't decide what you think our network is for."