Apple Wants Priority-Assured Video Services Delivery

The fundamental problem with “network neutrality” rules aptly is illustrated by Apple’s talks with Comcast about enabling an Apple set-top box that has assured quality of service on Comcast’s high speed access network. 

 In other words, Apple does not want “best effort access,” which is what network neutrality mandates. Instead, Apple wants a managed service with quality of service controls. 

Some immediately will note that what Apple wants is not "packet prioritization" of the type forbidden by network neutrality rules. 

 But some will say the nomenclature is a bit of a ruse. 

 To wit, Apple does not believe “best effort” is good enough to ensure the quality of its proposed streamed content, and wants to be provided as a managed service over Comcast's access network. 

 To be sure, the Federal Communications Commission specifically exempts such managed services from the network neutrality rules. 

But some will note the irony: an IP app a "managed service" is lawful.  An over the top Internet app cannot use priority delivery mechanisms. 

 If Apple succeeds, you can be sure a wave of new "managed services" will be created, using prioritized access. 

 One immediate question is what is required for a service to be considered a "managed service," not an over the top Internet app. On the face of it, it would seem to be the offering of such a service by an Internet service provider directly, much as telcos, cable companies and satellite providers sell "managed" voice service or linear video entertainment.

In other words, "who owns the service" might well become the clear delineation. 

That also suggests lots of opportunity for future business deals between over the top and ISP partners to create such managed services. In large part, that would render "network neutrality" a bit more hollow. 

 Such "who owns the service" regulation is one reason many have supported “network neutrality;The whole point of such a framework was to prevent ISPs from favoring "their own" apps over similar offerings provided by independent third parties. 

 The potential Apple deal with Comcast would increase the uncertainty about the soundness of the framework long term. 

Few would question, at least at this point, the "right" of a facilities-based access service provider to create its own branded managed services. 

That is what voice service is, after all. Likewise, nobody would question the right of a TV or radio broadcaster, telco, cable company or satellite services provider to create and deliver a service over its own network. 

The big issue has been the framework for over the top, unaffiliated apps and services. 

The Apple proposal gets around that issue because the proposed streaming service essentially would be a service created and "owned" by the access provider (even if Apple is the essential partner). 

There are some trade-offs for the video service supplier. It might mean such a managed service is not available as an Internet app, only as a for-fee service offered by one or more ISPs. 

That will limit potential audience to a certain extent, unless the managed service reaches agreement with most of the ISPs in a market that represent 80 percent to 90 percent of the potential customer base. 

The enduring issue is that quality delivery of paid-for video entertainment is subject to the same congestion issues that cause video stalling as all other apps when access networks are congested. In seeking to become a managed service, Apple wants priority delivery of its video bit, the very sort of thing network neutrality advocates have opposed. 

But that is the fundamental problem with network neutrality, some would argue. Prioritized access, under conditions of congestion, is a surefire way to deliver the bits with higher end user value. 

Consumer welfare, in other words, is increased when consumers get priority delivery of apps that are highly susceptible to degradation when access networks are congested. Apple’s efforts essentially are a rebuke to the notion that network neutrality actually enhances consumer welfare. 

It is one thing to argue that all lawful apps should be accessible to any user of the Internet. Everybody agrees on that point. The Federal Communications Commission, furthermore, already has adopted “no blocking” as a fundamental principle. 

But priority delivery is not blocking. It is a mechanism for providing quality of service when networks are congested. It’s the same principle as all content delivery networks lawfully use. 

Apple wants its video streaming traffic managed, not delivered “best effort,” as is Comcast  Internet traffic; in other words, to have its service offered as a managed service, not an “Internet app,” as Comcast’s linear TV also is treated.  

Precisely how regulators might view any future service of this type is not clear. 

The FCC already exempts “managed” services from the “best effort only” network neutrality principle. 

The important observation is that Apple is pointing out why prioritized access (even when it is called something else) is so important for voice and video apps, and why “best effort only” is not an optimal solution for delivering applications highly dependent on stable and predictable bandwidth.
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