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Net neutrality: All or nothing, or somewhere in between?

The notion of net neutrality can hinder VoIP QoS guarantees and thus has incited a contentious debate among telcos, Congress and the Internet community.

Your private VoIP network is humming along -- prioritizing traffic, compressing files, routing file services -- effectively shutting out jitter, latency and the dreaded dropped calls we've all seen captured so well in the Cingular ads. In fact, taming the QoS gremlins within your internal network may not have been as daunting as you anticipated, but don't drop your guard just yet. Once your VoIP traffic passes onto the public network, it moves into a thick gray fog, a murk not yet cleared by the light of law.

Back in the early days, the gray neutrality of the Internet was absolutely crucial to its evolution. The universal amorphous state of the Internet permits packets to be passed indiscriminately between computers, transcending the limits of platforms, hardware and software, data types and even language, and it's this boundless freedom that has catapulted technology exponentially over the last two decades.

According to some groups, it's these same applications -- particularly voice and video apps, which evolved from the technological hopscotch of the .com era -- that are now threatening the very thing that bred them: net neutrality.

To ensure QoS, voice and video packets must be prioritized, but the Internet is structured so that all data is treated with essentially the same priority.
To ensure QoS, voice and video packets must be prioritized, but the Internet is structured so that all data is treated with essentially the same priority. While it's clear that some prioritization structure should be implemented to provide an unfettered path for high-quality voice and video transmission, how to go about designing the prioritization structure is a hotly debated subject.

Prioritization, or "traffic shaping" as it's sometimes called, could give telcos a significant competitive edge. It would be difficult for a Web-based service like Vonage, for example, to compete with a telephone company that has the ability to prioritize the customer data that travels over its lines above those of a competitor -- the telco's traffic speeds up, Vonage's stays the same.

How does this issue affect you and your organization? On the smaller scale, you could end up paying more for prioritized services. On the larger scale, it may hinder the creative ingenuity that helps us all work and live more efficiently and comfortably. How do we balance the unrestrained ecosystem of the Net that's brought about so much innovation while keeping checks in place to ensure QoS for all? Congress and the telecommunications industry have their positions -- what's yours? Let us know your thoughts on the best approach to the Net neutrality issue.

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