Could Net Neutrality Be A Bad Thing?

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The aim of net neutrality is a good thing, but innovation will require non-neutral services, argues Tekelec’s Randy Fuller

Despite the efforts of countless advocates and regulators at this point, net neutrality remains largely an abstract inkblot image, eliciting differing and often dramatic perceptions depending on which group is taking the Rorschach test. Why does this ambiguity persist?

Certainly the complexity of the network technology plays a role, particularly in wireless networks. In addition, the growing importance of the Internet and wireless services to today’s economies and societies also raises the stakes substantially. And because many networks are the vestiges of taxpayer-funded monopolies, or are perceived to wield incredible market power, some advocates view any operator profit motives as either distasteful or dangerous.

Network power for good… or bad?

But the primary difficulty in finding focus on net neutrality is that the network equipment involved in the debate can be used for both good and bad non-neutral purposes. Further, the still-nascent development stage of the Internet economy and mobile services makes it difficult, for now, to define “good” and “bad” uses of these capabilities.

Strict net neutrality proponents view the potential “bad” non-neutral uses of telecom network equipment as so dangerous that all non-neutral uses should be prohibited. They wish to force immediate and absolute neutrality and simply empower regulators to investigate any potentially beneficial or “good” uses proposed by carriers on a case-by-case basis.

The vast majority of potential harmful uses cited by net neutrality advocates involve providers discriminating against Internet services that compete with the providers’ own offerings. But such competing services represent a tiny percentage of the services and innovations in today’s and tomorrow’s Internet. Establishing blanket rules to combat these limited perceived dangers severely inhibits tomorrow’s innovations.

Advocates on the other side, conversely, favor sufficient restraint on regulation in order to permit substantial beneficial uses for consumers, content providers and service providers themselves. They view harmful uses as infrequent, easily identifiable, potentially detrimental to carriers, and subject to narrowly tailored regulations that can permit the beneficial uses to flourish.

How can we explain these dramatically different interpretations? The explanation lies in two primary areas:

  • A great number of beneficial non-neutral practices are employed in carrier networks today, but they are generally very technical and difficult to understand – especially compared to the easily understood fears of blocking content or competitors to the carriers.
  • We are just now on the cusp of an explosion of new beneficial non-neutral uses, but few people outside of service providers and certain vendors have seen them and their potential value to customers and content providers, as well as to the providers.

Net neutrality advocates speak in terms of “saving” the Internet and the economic innovations derived from a “free” Internet. The implied message is that the valuable innovations have originated from content providers, application developers, and consumers. The “core” of the networks themselves (within the telecom carriers’ facilities) are merely traffic conduits.

Are networks just pipes?

This mistaken and simplified view places the debate on unstable footing from the start, particularly with regard to wireless networks. The dramatic expansion of Internet applications currently underway – and desired by subscribers – often require new network core functions and innovations, such as:

  • Higher, or simply different, quality of service (QoS) allocations on a per-application or per-session basis.
  • Network database and application functions.
  • Complex and varying charging practices.

The mere delivery of video to mobile handsets, for example, masks an amazing array of technological innovation within the core wireless network, including non-neutral uses of equipment necessary to the delivery of such traffic. There are myriad complex requirements of device attachment, handoff, and dynamic bandwidth management as subscribers migrate within and roam among carrier transmission facilities. Without these innovations at the core, the innovations on which net neutrality advocates are focused would ultimately be impossible.

It is simply too early in the development of this exciting and nascent IP-based marketplace to determine whether broad net neutrality rules are likely to result in protecting further Internet innovation or whether they will deprive consumers of a full realisation of the Internet’s potential.

Service providers must be armed with sophisticated means to differentiate data transmission on the basis of QoS, bandwidth allocation, application types, and other criteria in order to offer subscribers and content providers the services they are currently demanding, and will demand in the near future.

We urge caution in establishing rules that may eliminate a wide array of beneficial services that can only be enabled by permitting carriers to intelligently control network resources through non-neutral means. The laudable goals of protecting and promoting the growth of Internet services are best served by addressing specific discriminatory practices with specific and targeted enforcement actions, rather than implementing with broad strokes rules that would have unintended negative effects on future technical and business models. If innovation in these markets is unintentionally stifled, competitiveness will suffer, as will, ultimately, the consumer.

Randy Fuller, director of strategic marketing at Tekelec, has more than 18 years of marketing, sales and business development experience with software, networking and consulting firms, ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 organisations.

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