Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Net neutrality... so what?

In the US, on February 26, days before the mobile world congress, the Federal Communications Commission released a declaratory ruling on “protecting and promoting the open internet”. The reclassification of fixed and mobile network services under title II telecom services by the FCC means in substance that network operators will be prevented from blocking, throttling, and prioritizing traffic and will have to be transparent in the way their traffic management rules are applied.  This is essentially due to an earlier ruling from the DC circuit Verizon v. FCC that struck down FCC’s rules against blocking and traffic discrimination but remarked that “broadband providers represent a threat to Internet openness and could act in ways that would ultimately inhibit the speed and extent of future broadband deployment.”

It is a great issue that broadband providers in this case are exclusively network operators, and not OTT providers, who have, in my mind the same capacity and have a similar track record in that matter. The FCC tried to provide “more broadband, better broadband and open broadband” and in its haste has singled out one party of the ecosystem, essentially condemning network operators to a utility model. This nearsightedness is unlikely to continue as several companies have already decided to challenge it. Less than a month after its publication, the order is being challenged in court by the United States Telecom Association, a lobbying group representing the broadband and wireless network operators as well as Alamo, broadband provider in Louisiana. There is no doubt that legal proceedings will occupy and fatten lawyers on both sides for years to come.

In Europe, the net neutrality debate is also far from being settled. After the European Commission seemed to take a no throttling, no blocking no prioritization stance in its “Digital single market” initiative, network operators, throughout their lobbying arm ETNO (European Telecommunications Network Operators’ association) started to challenge these provisions at the country level. Since the European Commission has not yet passed a law on the subject, the likeliness of a strong net neutrality stance will depend on support from each nation. In November 2014, compromises in the form of “non-discriminatory and proportionate” plans were discussed. The result is that net neutrality is still very much a moving target, with a lot of efforts being expanded to enable a managed internet experience, with a fast and a best effort lane. The language and ideas surrounding net neutrality is very vague suggesting either a great lack of technical expertise or a reluctance to provide an enforceable guidance (or both). It is more likely that countries at their individual level will start passing law to regulate some aspects of traffic management until a consensus is found at the European level.

In conclusion, there is obviously much debate over net neutrality globally, with many emotional, commercial, technical implications. There is at this stage no evidence of any regulatory authority having a good grasp of both the technical and commercial realities today to make a fair and enforceable ruling. As a result, politics, public sentiments, lobbying and lawyers will dictate the law for the next 5 years. In the meantime, it is likely that loopholes will be found and that collaborative approaches will show a lucrative business model that is likely to make the whole debate obsolete.

More analysis on traffic encryption, mobile advertising, data, video, mobile and media trends in  "Mobile video monetization 2015". 

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