One of the things that Net Neutrality opponents often use to justify their position is that a neutral network will kill the future development of the Internet. “The rules treating all packets the same that have been around since the beginning of the Internet [those rules that have fostered the creation of (insert any website or online service you have ever used here)] worked great up until today,” they say. “However,” they insist, “the next generation simply demands quality of service guarantees that can only be provided by a non-neutral network.” With that, they shrug almost apologetically (they really wish that the neutral network was sustainable, but it just isn’t) and walk away.
The problem with this argument is that the “next generation” technology that cannot exist without throwing out Net Neutrality has a tendency to change. First it was VOIP – people will not be able to rely on a neutral Internet for voice phone calls – there is too much latency and it is not reliable enough. Of course, the massive popularity of Skype, along with any number of other VOIP providers that work over today’s neutral Internet undermined that argument.
Then, it was video. High quality video distributed over a neutral network will be too jittery for people to watch. Fortunately Netflix, Revision3, and YouTube have proven that HD video works just fine when streamed over a neutral network. In fact, the rise of video interviews recorded over an open Internet suggest that a neutral network can support video and VOIP at the same time.
More recently, the next generation technology that could not work without getting rid of Net Neutrality was gaming. The thing that made gaming special in the minds of Net Neutrality opponents was latency – which you will remember from the objections to VOIP. The argument was that gaming requires split-second reactions, so online gaming would only work if it had some sort of guaranteed path to prevent those reactions from being communicated effectively.
In addition to being undermined by current online gaming technology (ask anyone who has played Halo on Xbox Live), the next generation also seems to be working just fine on a neutral network. OnLive, a new service that lets users play cutting-edge HD video games on their own computers through the Internet, suggests that it is time for Net Neutrality opponents to move on to the next technology.
One problem that gamers have traditionally had is that the latest and greatest games require the latest and greatest hardware. Staying on the cutting edge meant regularly upgrading your once great equipment with newly developed great equipment. OnLive tries to address that problem by running the hardware themselves. Your computer displays the game, and your computer is used to control the game, but the actual running of the game occurs on OnLive’s own servers. As long as your computer fulfills the relatively pedestrian hardware requirements, it can run any game you can imagine.
I have not tried it (and must admit that I was a bit skeptical at first), but reviews are starting to suggest that they are managing to pull it off – on a neutral network.
I do not know if OnLive will end up working for everyone, or if it will even be around in five years. However, even its existence also undermines another favorite claim of Net Neutrality opponents – namely that net neutrality will undermine investment. The folks behind OnLive have raised millions of dollars from investors. Unlike some startups, that money is not just going towards programmers. OnLive needs to build and maintain cutting edge hardware so that it can run all of those new games.
I cannot imagine that OnLive’s employees and backers are spending their time and money developing a service in the hopes that some day Net Neutrality rules will be struck down by the FCC or the courts. They are building their system on the assumption that it has to work on the neutral, open Internet just like every innovation that has come before.