A few years ago the internet was mainly about e-mails and browsing simple webpages. Today it is about downloading movies and music, making free phone calls or playing live video games with someone on the other side of the world. All you need is a broadband connection. But this explosion of content might not last if some telecoms providers have their way. The glue that holds together the vast internet wilderness - the principle of network neutrality, whereby every bit of data traffic is treated equally and carried without prejudice - is under attack. Owners of the backbone, which enables new digital applications, say they are fed up of giving free rides as costs mount and new bandwidth-heavy applications proliferate. They want the rules changed. In the pivotal United States market, telecoms and cable operators are lobbying the government to change the 1996 Telecommunications Act so their traffic is given priority. This could create a two-speed internet. Content providers who want to get into the fast lane would have to pay for it. Sites that can pay - rather than the best ones - win out. And if the US challenges the democracy of the internet, other countries will follow suit. A host of domestic companies will be preparing to challenge the global dominance of brands such as Google, Yahoo and eBay. The operators argue they are merely offering a tiered service in the same way as an airline has coach and first-class seating. But to many, these moves smack of a profit grab by network owners who want a slice of the giant profits earned by the Googles and Yahoos of the world. Consumer groups and bloggers are up in arms against telecoms carriers undermining the egalitarian basis of the Net. Japan offers an interesting parallel. When the music industry recently lobbied for a tax on Apple's hugely successful iPod, which many claim is hurting music sales, its calls went unanswered. Instead, Japan's minister for government affairs and communications lambasted industry for its failure to invent its own iPod. Should operators spend more time on innovation and less on lobbying, or is there a genuine grievance here? More money is being spent on networks - and not just in the US. Much of Asia is testing or building fat pipes for internet protocol television (IPTV). SBC in the US is spending more than US$4 billion to bring broadband fibre and IPTV to households. Yet the company worries about today's internet model being stacked against it. That extra bandwidth might allow customers to download movies directly from iTunes or Hollywood studios. The recent retreat from the IPTV market by Chunghwa Telecom in Taiwan, in less than two years, may raise concerns about this business model. The market offers little solace. While Google's stock market valuation tops US$100 billion and Skype recently sold for US$2.4 billion without owning any significant network infrastructure, Standard & Poor's downgraded US wireline telecoms at the start of the year. The reasons put forward were lost revenues from internet telephony that ran over broadband and the execution risks of triple play. Aside from lobbying, what may drive change is a breakdown of the Web model under a deluge of traffic, some industry experts say. The practice of peering - in which different operators carry each other's traffic for free, thus removing the barrier of distance on the Web - no longer works. David Chalmers, managing director of TeleGlobe's Asia-Pacific operations, said the surge in data-hungry applications such as peer-to-peer music sharing and gaming in Asia meant ISPs and operators had to go out and buy transpacific carriage. These costs are hard to recover because of the way broadband is sold. 'While most ISPs offer all-you-can-eat broadband packages based on speed, they are charged by volume on international traffic. This leaves operators caught in a pincer movement,' Mr Chalmers said. Operators are unable to ration the amount of bandwidth used, as it is driven by new content applications. Yet they have to pay for it. Customers are unlikely to take kindly to being charged by bandwidth usage. If the alternative is a two-tiered internet, paying more might be the lesser of two evils. Hong Kong has a lot of broadband providers to keep operators honest. But the days when the internet can provide an ever-growing feast of applications without additional cost may soon be over.