Speakers’ Corner: After the net neutrality blame game

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“The only way to do this is to divide available capacity between the many users accessing the mobile internet”

By Steven van Zanen, head of mobile broadband at Acision

We have seen explosive growth in mobile broadband traffic and with it the net neutrality debate has heated up once again.

For some, the concept of net neutrality means internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all subscribers equally in terms of internet use and access, preventing them from inspecting, shaping or controlling any traffic running over their networks.

Today, the debate has intensified after the recent Comcast vs. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appeals court decision found the FCC did not have authority to prevent Comcast from blocking the BitTorrent application used by some Comcast customers.

Although this ruling appears to pave the way for mobile broadband operators to restrict or throttle access to some websites or internet services, the FCC seems poised to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service in order to find other ways to exercise regulatory authority.

The parties involved in this crucial debate (operators, content providers and regulatory bodies) are becoming increasingly entrenched in a cross-industry blame game.

With such crucial issues at stake, it is imperative for all parties to start co-operating and come to an equitable solution.

In order to achieve consensus on this issue, net neutrality should be considered from a much wider perspective than discussed today. Two considerations are essential to add to the debate, the first being mobile broadband ‘quality of experience’.

Mobile broadband capacity is a constrained resource where demand will outstrip supply for the foreseeable future.

If left ‘free’ and unchecked, congestion will become a permanent feature of the service, making it something that is very difficult to use in any real sense. Having a legal right without the means to exercise it in a meaningful way is of little value to anyone.

The second consideration is the sustainability of the mobile broadband business model. The cost of offering mobile broadband is significantly higher than fixed broadband, making it much harder to recoup investments and operating costs. Operators simply need a large number of paying customers to generate sufficient overall revenue.

Also, if we want mobile broadband to be affordable, we need the mass market to generate sustainable levels of operator revenue. The only way to achieve this situation will be to divide available capacity between the many users accessing the mobile internet.

A differentiation strategy will be an intrinsic element of such a sustainable revenue stream. Again control of the broadband service is essential in achieving these important objectives.

All of this of course means that operators should not be allowed to do whatever they like. The fundamental right to access information has become too important in this digital age to allow this to happen. The needs of affordable internet access, a high ‘quality of experience’ and a sustainable business model need to be balanced fairly.

A well-defined and workable concept of fairness should be the focus. Should someone downloading rich-media content be treated the same as someone just browsing? If people pay more, shouldn’t they get more of the overall resource? Is an operator allowed to deny access altogether in certain circumstance, or should basic browsing always be possible?

These are all difficult questions. Regardless, operators will require the capabilities to know exactly which service the user is accessing, who is using it and what the originating location is, and then be able to act fairly upon this – and to explain how they have.

And so a clear definition of fairness needs to be developed that can be applied across the market.

This should be the focus of the net neutrality debate. The mobile industry has put great efforts in creating technical standards for the last decades. It’s time we started to define a standard for fairness as well.

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