Net Neutrality’s fate in the US has been decided. Yesterday’s 3 to 2 FCC vote ends the 2015 provisions that reclassified broadband providers as “common carriers” rather than “information providers” ensuring that they would be regulated like phone companies, and precluded from creating so called “fast lanes” on the the internet.
But what, if any, impacts will this have on the global debate? We look at the issue as it is playing out in the US with a snapshot of different approaches taken in other parts of the world.
On the ground, the debate pits the principles of consumer protection and a free and open internet against broadband providers and mobile carriers who, if the change takes effect, would be free to alter connection speeds based on preferred content streams whether they be native content, say, a carrier-provided IPTV service or a third party stream like Netflix, with whom they may be in partnership. Though carriers say the proposed new allowances won’t change the way they deliver services, consumer advocacy and watchdog groups aren’t convinced, arguing that because their primary responsibilities lie with shareholders and not consumers, there’s a risk that customer experience will suffer.
The move seems to follow the opposite course taken by European regulators who, under the auspices of the European Commission’s BEREC guidelines have enacted some of the globe’s toughest laws around net neutrality. Certainly, there’s no global consensus on the issue, with each country having its own unique flavour. Where Europe is one of the strictest, the Middle East – with the exception of Bahrain – has for the most part avoided the issue. In India, the controversy came to a head in 2015 with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) publishing a paper entitled Regulatory Framework for Over-the-Top Services, inviting public commentary for which they received more than a million responses. In 2016, presumably inspired by these comments, the TRAI moved to enact a law that like the BEREC regulations precludes telecom companies from charging discriminatory rates for data while focusing on some specific abuses, like street-level mobile capacity resellers. Doubling down on its restrictions, and in a move completely different direction from the US, India doubled down on its laws at the end November enacting probably one of the world’s strictest net neutrality laws with some operators decrying it as heavy handed overreach. From our first review of the Indian regulation it seems to follow the EU recipe very closely. One major difference is exempting Content Delivery Networks from the non-discrimination rules, a topic we will return to at a later date.
In Canada, that has a similar law to the one enacted in the US, the issue has returned to parliament. This week, Canadian conservative MP Maxime Bernier took the opportunity of the much-anticipated vote south of the border to present the case for similar new relaxations in Canada. Though his self-proclaimed libertarian views are often supported by fellow conservatives in Ottawa, this was not one of them. Still, the FCC vote could have an impact on laws being written in other parts of the world and especially those which such close ties to the US including Canada and Mexico.
As the European telecom industry prepares for the impacts of BEREC, there appears to be an argument that stricter Net Neutrality laws like these may in fact stymy innovation. Some observers have suggested that at very least uncertainty around BEREC, if not the substance of the guidelines themselves have slowed network investment and development on the path to 5G. Many carriers we have spoken to are concerned that key innovations like network slicing may be at loggerheads with net neutrality. As we reported in these pages back in October, quite to the contrary, the rules that make specific provisions for so called “specialised services” and reasonable “traffic management” initiatives signal an understanding that net neutrality does not equate with one-size-fits all. Looked at in detail, as we have done in our own document Cloudstreet & Net Neutrality Compliance Brief, the language quite clearly points to the manner in which network performance can and should be managed and differentiated.
“Providers of electronic communications to the public, including providers of internet access services, and providers of content, applications and services shall be free to offer services other than internet access services which are optimised for specific content, applications or services, or a combination thereof, where the optimisation is necessary in order to meet requirements of the content, applications or services for a specific level of quality.”
And they go on to provide a more detailed look at what kinds of use cases they have in mind when talking about “specialised services”:
“Typical examples of specialised services provided to end-users are VoLTE and linear broadcasting IPTV services with specific QoS requirements, subject to them meeting the requirements of the Regulation, in particular Article 3(5) first subparagraph.”
Not only does this clear the way for mobile traffic differentiation, but essentially confirms that network slicing – a framework that allows a single physical network to host several logical networks, is the only way to achieve it. In fact, BEREC specifically identifies it as an allowance. Specifically these would include situations where a carrier is extending hybrid broadband or fixed wireless services into new, un-served or remote regions. Here the name of the game is slicing capacity for different customers and customer segments, say, between homes and the local coffee shop. And this provides a perfect launch pad for yet another net neutrality-aligned exception, and that’s carrier native IPTV. BEREC states that if a carrier is moving to replace an existing service like fixed line TV or even woefully outdated analog TV for mobile-enabled IPTV services, the carrier can adjust the network to accommodate these services as required.
And because they follow with the qualifier that preferred performance can be delivered for these “specialized services” – as long as no other user’s experience is not made to suffer – net neutrality is once again the yet unheralded saviour. The only way that that could be achieved would be via network slicing.
Certainly network slicing will be, to a one degree or another, a key component of all major telecom networks in the years to come, and will achieve similar ends with or without net neutrality. In Europe, where net neutrality is core principle, network slicing will preserve it by giving customers the choice of how their network performs for them, provide businesses the freedom to innovate and carriers the ability to monetize that need. In countries like the US, or the middle east, where net neutrality may be a goner, the concerns over stifling innovation suddenly disappear, and not because there’s no net neutrality law, but again because ,for the first time, consumers will have the ability to govern their own quality of experience and businesses the freedom to deliver that quality-of-experience with SLAs attached.
No doubt the world is watching the net neutrality debate once again. We hope that this provides a good opportunity to look at Network Slicing in this context, as a silver bullet for global economies, regardless of what laws they may have on the books.