Is net neutrality faltering or dead in the water?

By:
Jason McGee-Abe
Published on:

As cloud, video and mobile continue to drive bandwidth demand, carriers are left in a difficult position on how to best manage network access

The net neutrality debate is once again rearing its head. Consumers want their internet experience preserved and protected, regardless of the legal or regulatory mechanism. 

United States

In mid-May, commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted two-to-one to continue the process of overturning net neutrality rules, which were enacted in 2015 under the Obama administration. The rules had forced internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all data traffic as equal and banned them from creating fast or slow lanes that could favour one service over another or restrict internet traffic.

GTB asked Tom Wheeler, who stepped down from the US regulator in January, whether he had any regrets over the net neutrality policy, its implementation or the subsequent battles with the major carriers. 

He responded: “Absolutely not! The success of the internet came from the fact that it was open in the dial-up and DSL eras; that should continue in the broadband era. We designed a set of rules similar to the rules that have governed the wireless industry – which the industry sought – for 25 years. “The rules establish basic common carrier responsibilities and forbear from traditional monopoly regulation. Under these rules, the wireless industry experienced tremendous growth in investment, services and subscribers and I expect the same to hold true under the Open Internet rule’s similar approach.”

Interestingly, the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking also proposed redefine broadband as an information service once again.

Talking about the FCC’s decision to introduce net neutrality rules in 2015, new chairman Ajit Pai said: “It imposed upon all internet service providers, big and small, the heavy-handed regulatory framework designed during the Roosevelt administration to micromanage the AT&T telephone monopoly. These utility-style regulations, known as ‘Title II’, were and are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea – except that here, there was no flea.

“As a result of these rules, small ISPs faced new regulatory burdens associated with common carrier compliance. Innovative providers hoping to offer their customers new, even free services had to fear a Washington bureaucracy that might disapprove and take enforcement action against them. 

“With the possibility of broadband rate regulation looming on the horizon, companies investing in next-generation networks hesitated to build or expand networks, unsure of whether the government would let them compete in the free market.”

“Today, we propose to repeal utility-style regulation of the internet. We propose to return to the Clinton-era light-touch framework that has proven to be successful. And we propose to put technologists and engineers, rather than lawyers and accountants, at the centre of the online world.”

Europe

As we go to print, Henk Kamp, minister of economic affairs in the Netherlands, has reportedly told Dutch MPs that the government plans to scrap the strict interpretation of net neutrality from the country’s Telecommunications Act.

This comes after Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile Netherlands division scored a win for zero-rating after a Rotterdam court ruled on 20 April that it could continue to offer its data-free music service to its customers. At the turn of the year, ACM, the Dutch Consumer and Market Authority, had ordered T-Mobile that it must end the offer of zero-rated music streaming as the practice violates the country’s net neutrality regulations.

Ronan Kelly, CTO of Adtran for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, said: “I’d suggest that current European Commission legislation actually allows more leeway than most of us give it credit for. ... Recently the European Commission has been more vocal in attempting to bring greater clarity to what has been a topic that the industry doesn’t always agree on or interpret the same way.”

The European body has clarified that while internet access providers can’t negatively affect users’ experience of the network, or deliberately degrade their traffic in any way, this should not automatically be interpreted as specific traffic types cannot be prioritised. 

“Specialised services can be prioritised to permit the offering of new service guarantees, and ultimately opening up new sources of network monetisation,” said Kelly. “This is all predicated on the understanding that there is sufficient network capacity to provide these new guaranteed services, and if it doesn’t detrimentally affect other users’ quality of internet access. In essence, you can’t degrade the network but you can upgrade it.”

Another proponent, Marc Andreessen, the creator of the Netscape browser and a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, told the Washington Post: “If you have these pure net neutrality rules … you’re not ever going to get a return on continued network investment – which means you’ll stop investing in the network.”

The models around the world of protecting net neutrality are seemingly faltering.