The net neutrality debate has been hijacked by an argument about consumer and intellectual property rights. As usual, the needs of business users have largely been sidelined, says Nick White.
The recent BT launch of Content Connect, allowing ISPs to charge content providers, has sparked allegations of a two-tier internet and reignited the heated debate over so-called network neutrality.
Even though the issue of net neutrality has been simmering for some time, it is often misunderstood.
The European Commission concluded recently after a public consultation that there was no need or justification for further network neutrality regulation at this point. It argued that ISPs could manage traffic on their network, so long as what they did was transparent.
This inconsistency of regulatory approach to net neutrality is a major enterprise concern.
Acceptable traffic prioritisation
On that basis, net neutrality is reduced to ensuring acceptable traffic prioritisation processes, which are not anti-competitive in nature. Thus it permits using such rules to deliver different levels of contracted service, or to manage fault recovery situations.
On 21 December, US government agency the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three to two to approve an order for implementation of net-neutrality policies. The order has three sections that set policies on transparency, prohibit blocking lawful content on wired networks and certain types of content on wireless networks, and prevent unreasonable discrimination.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said the measure was "a compromise between industry and consumer interests, which protects internet freedom and openness, and which promotes robust innovation and investment". The same provisions do not apply as strongly to mobile users because the agency voted to keep wireless networks generally free of rules preventing the blocking and slowing of web traffic. So are rules needed or not?
The UK government appears to favour a two-speed internet, as Ed Vaizey has recently said: "ISPs have to be free to experiment with new charges to help pay for expansion in internet services and infrastructure. This could include the evolution of a two-sided market, where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service." Ofcom will make its views known later in the year.
Variable regulatory approach to neutrality
This inconsistency of regulatory approach to net neutrality is a major concern.
Enterprise customers already suffer severely from inconsistent regulatory environments. Market analysis to determine if a problem exists must not be confined to individual site connections in single EU member states, or indeed to individual countries elsewhere.
An internationally standard classification of applications and content may be needed, to enable regulation of allowable traffic management to be applied consistently.
But what exactly is the net-neutrality issue, and does it need any more regulation? Unfortunately, the neutrality debate has been hijacked by an argument about...
...rights — between the intellectual property rights of content owners and the user access rights of those connected to the internet. As usual in such situations, the needs of the business users of international communications services have been largely ignored.
International Telecommunications Users Group (Intug) had to protest on behalf of business users when there was a proposal for a "three strikes and out" rule, which would have required ISPs to cut off connections that had been used for illicit downloads three times, as this would have risked disconnecting businesses.
The net-neutrality debate in the UK leans towards a two-speed internet, as minister Ed Vaizey has mentioned. Photo credit: David Meyer
Fundamental business concerns
Business users have more basic and fundamental concerns than the tabloid headline issues of illicit downloading and uncontrolled file-sharing, and the consequent loss of potential revenue from copyright owners, serious those these concerns are.
Business users need to be certain that their choices of device, application, content, and network service provider, will continue to support their core business processes, regardless of the self-serving actions of the suppliers of these components of the internet ecosystem.
There has been understandable concern about blocking applications for apparently commercial reasons, such as VoIP, on some mobile networks, but this concern has come mainly from providers of those applications.
If adopted as a legitimate process on a widespread basis, this approach could have catastrophic effects on businesses. Their core processes include internet connections to supply-chain partners and mass-market end consumers, who are the current focus of attention.
Examples of network restrictions
There have already been a wide range of illustrative consumer examples that have not yet caused fundamental business distress, but these could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Exclusive network deals for iPhones on one mobile operator only, the blocking of Skype by classifying it as VoIP, and the elimination of Sky channels from some triple-play bundled Virgin services are just three examples where the received wisdom might be: "Well, the consumer has a choice and can vote with their feet by changing provider".
But suppose the application wasn't Skype but SAP? And suppose the device wasn't an iPhone but a dealer terminal? And suppose the content wasn't a Sky channel, but your brand market research database? Now what happens if an ISP decides not to support one of these, for reasons of traffic management or service quality?
And suppose the application is outsourced to a cloud-computing service or the marketing database is a third-party source, and the ISP just accords it a lower priority in their traffic rules?
There have already been a range of consumer examples that have not yet caused business distress, but these could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Looking for alternative providers
In such cases it is no answer to say that you just vote with your feet and change your service provider, because the blockage might be at your supply-chain partner's end rather than at your end, and you can't tell them to change their supplier.
Or you may find that your end consumers can no longer access your website, because its traffic generates congestion on the access link for the ISP's higher priority customers.
But don't think that these concerns apply only to private enterprise. The same issues apply to public enterprise internet use too — for example, for e-health, e-education and for e-government communications with the general population. It might also affect smart controls on utility grids, or smart grid computing. Applications, content and devices used for these are also at risk from ill-conceived network neutrality regulations and remedies.
Chaos in the business-to-business market
Discussion of these issues seems to have been completely missed in the debate over net neutrality. And yet it is easy to see how a principle, which seems reasonable and harmless in a mass-market, media-dominated, entertainment-oriented context, could cause chaos in the business-to-business market.
There has been virtually no dialogue on these issues, and yet there is a risk that the implications will be lost if the focus remains entirely on the protection of intellectual property rights and the remedies for preventing, limiting or punishing illegal downloading and sharing.
The bottom line is this: network neutrality is a complex business user issue.
Nick White is executive vice president of the International Telecommunications Users Group and a Communications Management Association strategic board member. He has spent more than 35 years in international telecoms, having worked for various multinationals, including Reuters, Midland Bank and Unilever. White is now an independent consultant in telecoms regulatory affairs, representing user interests at national and international level.
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