How would you like it if you went to gas up your Ford Escape and the pump would deliver only a quart per minute?

You'd inquire, only to discover that your brand of gas had struck a deal with General Motors to pump gas at the full rate only into GM cars. But if you wanted to pay extra, you could have it at the full flow rate.

At the station across the street, BMWs and Audis were getting full flow, but Fords would still have to wait.

Preventing a similar situation is what "net neutrality" is all about.

The telcos that run the high-speed networks are the spinal cord linking us all to one another and to the providers we choose.

Under the guise of needing more money for installing more fiber and faster terminal equipment to handle multiplexed signaling on existing fiber, the telcos are trying to establish a tiered price-performance system.

Large Internet service providers such as the telcos are often outmaneuvered by smaller, more nimble start-ups that create new services such as VoIP, streaming video, podcasting and music downloads.

When these offerings become successful, the telcos may decide to enter the business. Then they realize that it's their high-speed lines that make the service possible, and that their customer (the start-ups buy upstream access from the telcos) is now their competitor.

There are other layers, such as ISPs, area networks and packet aggregators, but ultimately, each layer pays its upstream provider.

Suddenly it becomes attractive to slow down the rate at which those services can deliver packets to you, so the telcos' offerings will look more inviting.

Worse, without a Net-neutrality law, the telcos and ISPs can block access to some sites.

Think you live in a free country, with unlimited access to everything on the Net? Guess again. The only difference between the U.S. and China is that the ISPs, not the government, are blocking sites. They're doing it for financial, not political gain, although there are some cases of ideological censorship. (See www.savetheinternet.com/=threat#abuse.)

My colleague Michael J. Miller was the first to go on record in these pages, back in March, with a plea for you to make your voices heard.

Since then, it appears that the telcos' powerful lobbying efforts are keeping Congress from doing what it should do: declaring the Internet portions of the telcos to be common carriers and thereby subject to federal regulation, so that all content providers pay for and get nonpreferential service.

If a telco wants to offer content or services, it must do so on a level playing field

Some service providers are trying to sell the idea that content providers are getting a free ride.

As AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre said, "I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network — obviously not the piece from the customer to the network, which has already been paid for by the customer in Internet access fees, but for accessing the so-called Internet cloud."

Whitacre says that content providers such as Google and Yahoo! should be paying for the privilege of reaching his customers, conveniently forgetting that they pay bandwidth charges for the gigabytes of data retrieved from their servers each month.

Every content provider pays its host for ­access; the more data we draw from a provider, the more the provider pays to the host.

Yet the telcos say they're not making any money on the backbone. Did they forget how to make a profit?

You may hear that telcos can't charge more ­money for backbone traffic because it's regulated, like phone rates. Untrue.

Telephone rates are governed by state utilities commissions and by federal law, but in the eyes of the law, Internet access is not telephone access.

Laws mandating universal access to telephone service redistribute a share of the profits from long-distance and international calls to ­rural telephone access and new technology development — so money goes back to the telcos anyway.

It is important that you let your legislators know that Net neutrality matters greatly to you and that it should be a major platform plank for anyone seeking reelection.

Tell your senators that you want them to support S.2917, which guarantees net neutrality (www.congress.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:S.2917:). Let the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (commerce.senate.gov/about/membership.html), where the bill now resides, know how important this subject is to you.

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