Fixed-line ISPs should not be allowed to prioritise certain applications or services over those of rivals, according to proposals submitted to US authorities by web giant Google and telecoms provider Verizon.
The suggestions were made on Monday in a joint blog post by the two companies and in a legislative framework proposal document sent to US lawmakers. In what Google and Verizon called a "principled compromise", the companies propose that fixed-line ISPs should be able to prioritise some traffic, but not specific content, applications or services.
Fixed-line providers should be able to give priority to entire classes of traffic — VoIP, for example — as these types of traffic demand low latency, or as brief as possible a delay between a request for data and the data being delivered, the companies said.
However, the proposal's 'non-discrimination principle' calls on fixed-line ISPs not to block or degrade internet content and applications in a way that would harm competitors.
"Importantly, this new non-discrimination principle includes a presumption against prioritisation of internet traffic — including paid prioritisation," the companies said in the blog post.
The proposal differs when it comes to wireless operators, as opposed to fixed-line ISPs: Google and Verizon said that wireless operators should be free to prioritise or degrade whatever traffic they like. This is because of "the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services", the companies said in their legislative submission.
If the suggested rules were in place, it would mean, for example, that Verizon could not assign more of a fixed-line customer's bandwidth to its own VoIP services while degrading the quality of a rival service. Verizon would, however, be able to do something similar over its mobile broadband network. This comes with the proviso that both fixed and wireless operators would have to clearly inform their customers about their traffic management policies.
The proposals follow 10 months of discussion between the Google and Verizon, largely over the issue of so-called 'net neutrality'. Net neutrality calls for the internet to remain open to all and for all internet traffic to be treated equally. It has long been an issue in the US, where regional telcos act as de facto monopolies or duopolies, leaving customers with little option to switch provider if they dislike their ISP's policies. However, net neutrality is being increasingly debated in Europe too.
This is because of the explosion in online data, particularly media content, which has left more and more operators wanting to sell their services in tiers. Some tiering already takes place in the fixed-line broadband world in the UK, with ISPs selling packages that prioritise videoconferencing or gaming traffic, for example. However, this practice is not yet widespread in mobile broadband — a sector that is particularly feeling the pressure of the data explosion.
"It is imperative that we find ways to protect the future openness of the internet and encourage the rapid deployment of broadband," Google and Verizon's policy chiefs, Alan Davidson and Tom Tauke, said in the joint blogpost. "Verizon and Google are pleased to discuss the principled compromise our companies have developed over the last year concerning the thorny issue of 'network neutrality'.
"Crafting a compromise proposal has not been an easy process, and we have certainly had our differences along the way. But what has kept us moving forward is our mutual interest in a healthy and growing internet that can continue to be a laboratory for innovation," they added.
Google and Verizon want two of their suggestions made enforceable by law. One is the non-discrimination proposal, while the other is a consumer protection proposal: that all ISPs should be banned from stopping their users sending and receiving lawful content, running lawful applications, using lawful services and connecting lawful devices that "do not harm the network or service, facilitate theft of service, or harm other users of the service".
It is imperative that we find ways to protect the future openness of the internet and encourage the rapid deployment of broadband.– Alan Davidson and Tom Tauke, Google and Verizon's policy chiefs
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would enforce the consumer protection and non-discrimination requirements through case-by-case adjudication, and it would be able to fine companies up to $2m (£1.3m) for non-compliance. Additionally, all prioritisation of traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination requirement, but "the presumption could be rebutted", Google and Verizon said.
Another exception to the prioritisation rule would be web-connected services that are "distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband internet access service, but could make use of or access internet content, applications or services", the companies said. Google and Verizon's policy chiefs gave the examples of IPTV, healthcare monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, and new entertainment and gaming services.
The proposals list "technically sound" network management practices that should be permissable. These include practices that reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on a network, ensure network security or integrity, address traffic that is "unwanted by or harmful to users, the provider's network or the internet", to ensure service quality to a subscriber, or to "prioritise general classes or types of internet traffic, based on latency", the companies said.
Google and Verizon also said that the FCC should have exclusive charge of overseeing broadband internet access service, but should not have any authority over internet software applications, content or services.
In addition, broadband internet access should be eligible for federal funding "to spur deployment in unserved areas and to support programmes to encourage broadband adoption by low-income populations", they said.
ZDNet UK has asked Google whether it intends to make similar proposals here, but had received no response at the time of writing. In the UK, an Ofcom consultation on net neutrality will close in early September.