Asia to see greater Net neutrality discussion

Debate around equal Web access for all to grow more prominent in region amid unique government regulations, and rapidly developing Internet consumption and infrastructure, note industry observers.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Once a topic debated more vigorously outside the region, Net neutrality is seeing more interest in Asia due to unique government initiatives and rapid Web infrastructure development. In contrast, the topic has lost steam in the United States.

In an e-mail interview, Craig Skinner, senior consultant at Ovum, told ZDNet Asia that a series of factors are coming together and heightening the importance of discussions around Net neutrality. These components include next-generation networks (NGN) and convergence, bandwidth-intensive Web 2.0 applications such as video, and the erosion of traditional voice revenues for telecos, forcing market players to seek alternative revenue streams which put them in direct competition with network-independent Web services providers.

Skinner iterated that these factors have all led to a divergence--and dilemma--between costs and revenues for the network provider with regard to managing different types of Web traffic, for instance, video versus peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing.

Proponents of Net neutrality support the principle that all online services and content should to be treated equally, so Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate against certain services or content by prioritizing or impeding access to any particular site or application through blocking or slowing bandwidth. For example, carriers cannot deliberately degrade traffic performance of competing Web sites or charge other site operators a premium in exchange for preferential treatment, whilst giving priority to traffic running to and from their own sites.

Cost versus revenue
Following years of discussions, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last December finally made Net neutrality regulations official.

However, Skinner stressed that regulators must not underestimate the pressure network providers face in balancing cost and revenue.

The Melbourne-based analyst noted that, in Asia, there has been greater reliance on competition to mitigate the impacts of ISP discriminatory behavior. He pointed to countries such as Australia and Singapore as "interesting" case studies, where he said government initiatives on broadband networks have included open access as a fundamental requirement, enabling network neutrality upfront.

Singapore's ICT regulator, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), released its Net Neutrality Consultation Paper on Nov. 11 last year to seek views and comments from the industry and public regarding regulatory policies on the issue.

An IDA spokesperson said in an e-mail interview that the regulator's stance on Net neutrality is important to provide guidance to the industry on what is acceptable and what is not. For example, the blocking of legitimate content such as voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) services is prohibited, she said.

Beyond regulatory requirements, however, she added that IDA is prepared to allow ISPs to differentiate their service offerings. For instance, an ISP can enter into an agreement with a provider of time-sensitive telemedicine services in order to provide high-performance Internet access to consumers.

According to the spokesperson, IDA's approach to Net neutrality is one that is "pragmatic and balanced". The proposed framework is built on three prongs: promoting competition, increasing transparency, and ensuring a reasonable quality of Internet access, she explained.

Growing debate in Asia
Ben Cavender, associate principal from China Market Research Group (CMR), said he expects to see more discussion on Net neutrality in Asia. He told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that several markets in the region have been rapidly developing their network infrastructure, ISPs and content hosts.

Furthermore, Cavender observed that Web traffic and services that need high bandwidth in Asia are on the rise, alongside a growing population of consumers who are now more willing to spend to access online information.

He noted that China's recent crackdown on what it deemed to be unapproved, or not state-owned, VoIP services is not directly related to Net neutrality but signals the Chinese government's stance and authority to step in and enforce regulations concerning Internet traffic management.

While the discussion on Net neutrality is set to intensify across the Asia-Pacific region, the debate has lost steam in the United States, according to Julian Wright, associate professor of the Department of Economics at the National University of Singapore.

In an e-mail interview, he said that Net neutrality had escalated into a political issue in the U.S. where battle lines have been drawn between the Republican and Democrat camps. And the debate is likely to get messier in the near future, Wright said.

Some have questioned whether the FCC has the authority to enforce its rules, he noted, adding that further complications could emerge when the reality of executing the concepts of Net neutrality surfaces with the possibility of unintended consequences.

Last week, open Web advocates criticized BT for offering a new service, which charges content companies a premium for higher-quality distribution of videos, that they said would create a two-tier Internet that goes against the 'all bits are equal' rhetoric of Net neutrality.

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