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...