To anyone who thought the furore over net neutrality was quietening to a gentle murmur, recent events on both sides of the Atlantic have once again brought the debate into sharp focus. Many within the industry are now starting to question whether the open Internet will soon become a two-tier service dominated by traffic management. At this stage, the diagnosis for an open Internet doesn’t look promising.
Surprisingly it wasn’t the FCC that reignited the debate on net neutrality but the European Commission. Until now, Europe’s governing bodies have remained largely silent on issues such as bandwidth throttling and traffic management, hinting that no new regulations are required to oversee service providers. However, in a speech delivered in Brussels last week, Neelie Kroes gave her strongest indication yet that she believes in the need for traffic management to optimise services and stimulate new business opportunities.
As the vice president for the European Commission’s digital agenda, Ms. Kroes will play a key role in deciding Europe’s stance on net neutrality and many believe that this speech cements the EU’s direction. However, Ms. Kroes was quick to include a number of caveats in her address, noting that service providers must not be able to impose anti-competitive restrictions or unnecessary bandwidth throttling. Indeed, Ms. Kroes was adamant that the Internet should remain as much a best-effort service as possible.
What’s interesting to note in Ms. Kroes speech is the use of the term ‘special services’. It's these services that she believes warrant traffic management. This is something that Ms. Kroes is not alone in. Across the Atlantic, the FCC is also exploring whether special (or managed) services require a different policy approach to the rest of the Internet, particularly if it’s not possible to implement these services effectively over current networks.
One of the key questions now being debated is what constitutes a special service. Telemedicine, remote learning and smart grid applications are examples frequently cited. But there are a number of grey areas that could cause concern, particularly when it comes to video offerings. What the European Commission and the FCC are both keen to highlight is that traffic management should only be used where new and innovative applications face possible restrictions on today’s open Internet.
As broadband access continues to develop, the debate over net neutrality and traffic management is clearly one that has to happen. The reason people are clamouring for more bandwidth is to enable these new services that could potentially have a dramatic impact on people’s economic, environmental and social conditions. Yet without new rules to govern these services, bandwidth alone may not be enough to ensure their success.
What’s critical is that service providers do not use traffic management to impede open access or throttle bandwidth unnecessary. One need only examine how European mobile providers are currently restricting access to Skype to see how this situation needs to be carefully monitored. Yet without any regulations or firm directives, it is difficult to see how special services and an open Internet could co-exist.
Do you believe that the future of the open Internet is in doubt? Or does traffic management represent an exciting opportunity for new applications that could potentially change the way we live our lives? I’d be interested to hear your feedback on this one.