Will 5G Make Packet QoS (Prioritization) Unnecessary?

Network neutrality remains as obscure a topic as ever, despite efforts to reduce it to a bumper sticker slogan. Virtually everyone agrees on the original and basic version: no blocking websites; no censoring online content; no throttling, degrading or discrimination of network performance based on content.

Also, disclosure to consumers about how networks are managed.

Where there is disagreement is when network neutrality is stretched to cover any number of other practices, such as zero rating or packet prioritization. The former is exclusively a matter of business practices. Can, or should, an internet service provider allow consumers access to services, apps or sites without charge?

The latter is a matter of importance for some classes of apps that actually require deterministic performance.

“AT&T is not interested in creating fast lanes and slow lanes on anyone’s internet,” says Bob Quinn, AT&T senior EVP. “What we do care about is enabling innovative new technologies like autonomous cars, remote surgery, enhanced first responder communications and virtual reality services, which are real-time interactive services that require end-to-end management in order to make those services work for consumers and public safety.”

“I think we can all agree that the packets directing autonomous cars, robotic surgeries or public safety communications must not drop,” said Quinn.

The Restoring Internet Freedom decision really is about freedom, no matter whether one is for or against the order. A key issue is “who gets the freedom.” Freedom is for consumers, we agree. Freedom is for app and content providers, we agree. The FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom order adds freedom for access providers.  

If you read the document, you are quickly “in the weeds” of telecom policy. But like the decision or not, the decision is fundamentally about freedom.

At one important level, the heart of the matter is our understanding of network neutrality rules, which historically has had a weak and strong form. Though many proponents of net neutrality have argued “net neutrality is dead,” others would argue that all the FCC has done is move back to the original form of net neutrality, and away from the “strong” form some have advocated.

Paradoxically, the original “weak” form protects and enhances freedom, while the “strong” form restricts freedom.

That original form was the the Four Freedoms principles articulated in 2004 and was then formally adopted by a unanimous Commission in 2005.

These include the freedoms for consumers to (1) ‘‘access the lawful internet content of their choice’’; (2) ‘‘run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement’’; (3) ‘‘connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network’’; and (4) ‘‘enjoy competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.’’

Repealing common carrier regulation does not repeal those principles.  “We reaffirm and honor this longstanding, bipartisan commitment,” the FCC says.

To be clear, those principles mean ISPs cannot block lawful content. The principles also have been understood to include a bar on “throttling” or degrading access to some apps based on the ownership of those apps.

Some proponents of strong forms of net neutrality rightly point out that some instances of content or site blocking by ISPs have occurred. It also is fair to say that the internet freedoms principles bar such action, and that the FCC remains committed to the “no blocking” rules.

Perhaps the bigger issue, though, is whether “best effort” access is the only class of service any internet user can buy or use. This is more complicated.

Major applications providers routinely use content delivery networks (CDNs) that improve quality of experience by reducing packet latency. In other words, CDNs do not “treat all bits equally” and instead use mechanisms to speed delivery and predictability of packet arrival beyond those possible using strict “best effort” mechanisms.

That normally is done by placing content stores closer to the edge of networks, thereby avoiding full transits of the public internet across wider distances.

AT&T’s point is simply that consumer internet access is not the issue. Though some believe there is demand for packet prioritization services, others think the market is so competitive that no ISP could actually make such a program work.

Think about coming 5G networks. If latency is just a few milliseconds, and bandwidth is upwards of several hundred megabits per second, up into the low gigabits per second, where is the value of packet prioritization?

In other words, at least some general purpose access networks will be so good that the market for prioritized delivery simply does not exist, for consumer internet services.

That would likely be true even for apps that benefit from low latency and more-predictable packet arrival (streaming video and audio; video conferencing; voice communications).

In other words, there might not be demand for fast lanes, because the general purpose networks will eliminate the need.

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