Tuesday, July 24, 2012

European "Network Neutrality" Issues Different than U.S. Issues

Last year the European Commission concluded an initial study on the issue of network neutrality, with findings that suggest issues are different in the European market, than in the United States.

A subsequent Body of European Regulators of European Communications (BEREC) investigation of Internet traffic management practices found that the most frequently reported restrictions on EC networks were the blocking or throttling of peer-to-peer traffic on both fixed and mobile networks and the blocking of Internet telephony traffic on mobile networks.

The report estimated that between 20 percent and 50 percent of European Internet users have contracts that allow providers to restrict services.

That points up a key difference between U.S. and EC service provider practices. In the U.S. market, blocking of lawful Internet applications is prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission's "Internet Freedoms" principles. In other words, no service provider can block a user's access to a legal application such as VoIP or peer-to-peer apps.

That appears not to be the case in EC countries, where at least some service providers block mobile VoIP, for example. 

But network neutrality really is a complicated issue, including distinct issues such as blocking of legal apps, ability to manage traffic to preserve quality of service and whether managed services can be created. 

In the U.S. market, no outright blocking of lawful appllications, including VoIP or peer to peer services, is permitted. 

At the moment, different frameworks exist for U.S. fixed network broadband access and mobile access where it comes to traffic management. On fixed networks, no traffic grooming, even for purposes of alleviating congestion, is permitted. Mobile operators may do so.

On fixed networks, no managed services providing quality of service benefits are permitted, though such practices are lawful on mobile networks. 

But network neutrality rules often bump up against business model issues. There is not dispute about whether a TV or radio broadcaster, or a cable TV or satellite network, can optimize its content for delivery to end users. 

The new area of uncertainty is whether application and content providers should be able to do more, in the area of content delivery, for example, to optimize applications on behalf of consumers or application providers. 

As content delivery networks actually favor some content over others, so it is conceivable that either end users or app providers might want to pay for quality of service mechanisms. Though you might argue that is no different than app providers paying for content delivery services, such quality of service mechanisms pose competitive issues, some argue. 

Obviously, optimized content will have an advantage over non-optimized, "best effort" content. That isn't so much an issue for non-real-time services. But real time services suffer when there is network congestion. Any over the top voice or interactive video application, for example, is quite sensitive to congestion. 

At issue is whether any end user or application provider ought to be able to buy an over the top Internet application or service that uses optimization techniques to improve experience, just as app providers buy content delivery network services. 

Transparency is a contested part of thinking about network neutrality, the notion being that users are entitled to know what terms and conditions might affect their use of Internet access services. 

The other real complication is that virtually all networks now use Internet Protocol, and not just for "Internet" apps. Users and regulators accept that a managed service has to be "managed" for quality reasons. 

But such managed services might use IP mechanisms on either private or public networks. Precisely what a "managed service" is, or ought to be, is a growing area of contention. Users, suppliers and regulators might agree that a service provider ought to be able to use quality of service mechanisms when providing carrier voice, video or messaging services, for example.

What is more contested is whether over the top suppliers of such services should also have the ability to create quality of service mechanisms as well. 

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