Industry Blog

Anything but neutral!

More flexibility and less legislation when it comes to net-neutrality – please!

Neutrality sounds good because it conveys the idea of “fair-play”, and we all like that. But neutrality doesn’t work in any other sphere of commerce or technology – so why would it work for the internet?

Transport networks of the past

At the risk of stating the obvious, take the postal service. If a business wants a parcel delivered somewhere in Europe, the standard mail service will happily do that.  If you want it guaranteed next day by 10am, FedEx or TNT will charge ten times the amount and take care of it. Both ways you benefit – you save time or you save money, and innovation is encouraged. Similarly with toll lanes and fast lanes on our roads, everybody benefits – you save time or you save money. And many times I have sat in the economy section of an aircraft paying US$2,000 for the ticket, only to discover the guy sitting next to me paid US500 for the same seat and same service. He however booked his seat last year as opposed to last week. Again there is choice and innovation is encouraged.

Of course everybody realises that transport networks of the 19th and 20th centuries work like this (?) But the argument is then made that the transport network of the 21st century, namely the internet, is somehow different and needs to be treated differently. The proponents of “net neutrality” say that this neutrality is needed in order to protect the smaller internet players, the “long tail of the internet” and encourage innovation. They seem to miss the fact that the over the top (OTT) internet players with their ad-funded revenue models including Facebook, Google and Twitter, all started out as those small, long tail players.  Somehow they seem to be doing OK.  Other people in the neutrality camp appear to take net neutrality as some sort of basic human-rights issue for developed economies. It’s the trendy new ideology.

US and Europe set sail in different directions

This topic has been hotly debated in the news and passions are running high. It is resulting in fledgling legislation on both sides of the pond and entrenched positions all round. But so far Europe and the US see things differently.

In Europe, the unstoppable Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, has led the fight for neutrality. She holds one of the most powerful jobs in Brussels and has had considerable success in instigating Europe-wide legislation for neutrality.  The European Parliament has voted decidedly FOR neutrality – to limit the power of telecoms providers to charge third parties for faster network access. It’s not 100%, for example those providers will be allowed to offer limited services at a higher price such as business critical services or interestingly certain classes of video on demand. But the intention is to create a neutral internet and disallow a business-class internet for customer who want to pay more.

Several organisations including the UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, have objected. They say the excessive legislation appearing from Brussels fails to recognise the need for “practical internet management” and the need for mobile operators to obtain a return on investment.

Meanwhile in the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has gone for a “pay to play” approach. Dubbed the “fast-lane plan” the FCC has indicated that they will create a paid prioritization scheme that could let ISPs charge content providers such as Netflix extra to obtain faster delivery of their traffic over the last mile.

Unsurprisingly the proposal has led almost 100 internet OTT companies including Amazon, Google and Facebook to send a letter to the FCC asking it to ditch these plans.

There’s no such thing as neutral

The problem with saying that all traffic must be treated the same is that …..err, all traffic is not the same, and all customers are not the same. Someone watching a live video-replay of their team’s world-cup goal demands the lowest latency / highest throughput. However me sitting in the dentist waiting-room thinking “can’t really be bothered to check my email today” – that doesn’t require the same network performance. As customers we have different expectations at different times.

This topic is now high on the agenda for regulators across the globe.  In order to ensure that the transport system of the 21st century – meets the needs businesses and consumers of the 21st century, we need to get hold of a few basic principles:

  • Mobile needs special attention. There is a difference between fixed internet and mobile internet. Mobile networks are different. They are inherently non-neutral. How can we say mobile networks are impartial when on one side the operators bear the burden of tens of billions of dollars, while on the other side, OTT players take the revenues?
  • Traffic shaping must be allowed for operators, particularly mobile, not for blocking or throttling traffic, but rather to allow them to manage their networks sensibly.
  • The customer experience must be maximised – if people want to pay for fast-lanes, let them. The rollout of LTE networks affords significant new mechanism for effective, customer focused traffic management. The goal must always be less legislation, more flexibility.

In conclusion, any student of philosophy will tell you that true objectivity does not exist. Everyone comes to the table with their own baggage, their own context, their own set of gripes and complaints – well apart from me obviously! There’s no such thing as “neutral”. So we need to let go of those religious ideals and ask what benefits the customer the most.

This blog was published by RCR Wireless on June 30. Click Here!