by Steph Wood

The possibility of a two tier internet in the United Kingdom is looking ever more like a certainty. With the nation’s biggest Internet Service Providers (BT, Virgin Media and Sky) collaborating on how to sell the idea of ‘fast lane’ access, it’s difficult to see how the proposition is going to benefit anyone but the market leaders.

For starters, the very notion of a ‘fast lane’ is surely erroneous: the fast lane is what we have now. Oh, it’s a highly congested ‘fast lane’, stressed to breaking point in some cases. But nine out of ten times, these ‘cases’ are those of the giant ISPs anyway, creaking under their popularity from a combination of misfortune and plain old greed. The real innovation is the creation of a lane for unprivileged traffic, not the other way round.

The Business to Business Problem

The motivation is money, and though the consumer would get a raw deal (because they would have to pay for a premium service), it’s the business to business side that will feel the most pain. Content providers like Facebook, Google (including Youtube) and Skype will have to pay if they want to receive privileged delivery rights. Now, the possibility of any of these multinationals losing some pocket change to the ISPs won’t be causing many damp cheeks, but this is besides the point.

If anything, the problem is that the status quo will be maintained, the five star internet reserved for the current leaders and the bar raised even higher for the newcomers. Skype is a poignant reminder that innovation on the net is increasingly about using as much bandwidth as you can get your hands on. How would a new social network challenge Facebook? To even equal them, they’d need enough bandwidth to handle millions of text, image, video and interactive components with speed, before adding whatever bandwidth-sucking unique selling point they’re hoping to have.

Then there’s Twitter, which has been sailing on millions of dollars of venture capital without ever turning a profit, subject to its own hosting problems and generally creaking even though its service is nearly completely text based. Could Twitter have thrived in a two tier environment? Will it thrive?

Consumer Apathy Dooms Us All

So, you say, if we’ve got a problem with two tier ISPs, why not just move to a different provider? After all, many smaller ISPs will refuse to impose similar systems, and will remain popular alternative, truly open alternatives. I suspect that many of us will go with such providers, just as many of us probably already do. But we’re not part of the problem, or the solution. Two tier internet is not the first data segregation strategy employed by the big ISPs, and it won’t be the last. Millions of people don’t care about ‘fair usage policies’ and throttling for heavy users, just as there are those who don’t care that Internet Explorer 6 hasn’t been a valid window on the wired for at least half a decade.

But this just brings us back to the businesses. The ramifications of two tier access are far more serious than they were with fair usage policies. ‘Fair usage’ hit the heaviest net users, the gamers, movie aficionados and the pirates: people who will move on to other ISPs if they’re not being adequately served. But the millions of people who already content themselves with the big ISPs are a lot less likely to budge when they can pay extra for privileged access. So businesses face a situation where, if they want access to the market at large, they need to pay for that access.

The BBC have been among the first to say they won’t bow to two tier pressure, but it remains to be seen whether their stance will be realistic should access to iPlayer and other services be throttled. The principle is sound: equal access for all has been a corporation policy since the beginning. But perhaps ‘equally patchy’ access for all won’t do them any favours in the long term.

Steph Wood works in marketing and copywriting, currently generating content for Splash Bathrooms UK who stock everything from Shower enclosures to full Bathroom Suites.