Internet istock

Network neutrality is one of those terms that has assumed the status of sacred cow among internet users (and that's all of us of course).

The idea is that we should expect 'fair' unfettered access to all internet resources from wherever we sit. And that, although the bandwidth of the pipes that connect us, the speed of servers we are interrogating and the amount of traffic travelling with us may all affect the speed of the experience we have, it will be the same experience whatever we happen to be doing.

It's analogous to a motorway where we all expect to travel along the road at the same speed irrespective of whether we are in a 44-tonne truck delivering machine parts to a factory in Stafford from Coventry, or taking our new McLaren P1 for a spin along the same route. In a net neutral world we are all on the same nightmare journey through the centre of Birmingham, along the elevated motorway and past the clogged junction with the M5 from the South West. However, in a non-neutral world, and if we were wealthy enough to run a McLaren, we might choose to pay a little extra to avoid the chaos: £5.50 and the M6 Toll Road to be precise...

Online, it is the extreme demands that a very small number of consumer data providers make on a shared resource which has driven this debate. On one side are the net neutralists who want one network, and no special favours for those prepared to pay for better service. On the other are ISPs who see a few internet companies using a disproportionate amount of bandwidth in pursuit of their business model, but because of the net neutrality idea, don't have to pick up any of the burden.

It is suggested in some recent research that Netflix and YouTube together are responsible for up to half the data flying around the US internet at peak times. Their freedom to do that unfettered is also everyone's else's freedom to lose half their bandwidth.

In the US, it may be a bigger problem than here in the UK as there is less competition between ISPs, partly because of previous over-regulation of the telecoms sector. In 2010 the US FCC defined some 'open internet' rules to defined aspects of net-neutrality. These were subsequently (at the start of this year) overturned as the result of an appeal by one ISP – Verizon.

Now another big US ISP, Comcast, has made its own agreement with Netflix to allow direct connection to Comcast's network in exchange for a suitable fee. There is now much wring on hands, but it's really very simple: Netflix has chosen the toll road because it doesn't want its customers stuck in traffic at Spaghetti junction.

Observer's opinions are so varied on the topic of who wins and who loses that it's impossible to draw any meaningful conclusion about how things might look by the time all ISPs have cut their own exclusive deals with the small number of high demand content providers, or what effect this will have on those outside the deal.

But to imagine that this new step represents a great breach in an otherwise flawless wall is mistaken.  It's already acceptable and common practice to shape network traffic to accommodate peaks (when the new series of House of Cards was launched on Netflix for example).  And some consumers' bandwidth is also throttled as the result of the contracts they have signed with their ISP.

And throttling specific applications has already happened too. It's been common practice to do it in response to that previous great bandwidth glutton – peer to peer networking. What's changed now is it's organisations who might just be prepared to pay for what they use, such as Netflix, that are today's data hogs.

Internet traffic demand is unpredictable and asymmetric. And an environment where the organisation that deliver services is not allowed to take any account of the size of the task it is being asked to undertake, absurd.

This is an issue that begs for analogies, all of which undermine a strictly net-neutral stance. Would we expect the Post Office to deliver a letter for a fixed price irrespective of whether it was an aero-gramme a few centimetres in area and few grams in weight, or a lead package several metres across and weighing hundreds of kilos? Do any of us work in a business that could operate this way?

Network neutrality, in its most extreme definition, was outmoded long before the latest round of challenges. Whether the important underlying verities it once contained about fair and equal access and opportunity for anyone connected to the internet can be retained in the subsequent litigation is harder to predict. There is the real consumer protection issue to be fought for.

At its worst, a less neutral internet may mean that one day, as a CIO, if you want to ensure a specific level of service across public internet connections you use, you'll need to start paying something for it. It's unlikely that these costs, whatever they are, will come close to the previous price of installing and maintaining private networks and connections.