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Thursday, October 07, 2010

A quick Net Neutrality paradox...

Let's say, hypothetically, that mobile Internet connections are allowed to be discriminated between. So, for example, a major operator like AT&T or Orange or Vodafone can charge "upstream" providers, such as an online gaming firm, for higher-quality connections for its services delivery to mobile users, over and above, say Facebook traffic.

[Note that this is for differential performance of *Internet* delivered services, within the context of overall "Internet Access", not separate non-Internet operator-hosted applications]

The problem is that WoW or EA or whoever will want a guarantee, not just a vague promise of better-than-average service. Would you pay for a business class airfare if you only knew you had an unspecified *probability* of a larger seat and better food?

In other words, they'll want an SLA, a mechanism for recourse if they don't get what they've paid for, and a means of monitoring/reporting that better quality was delivered as promised.

But the gating factor for mobile performance often isn't things like latency & congestion.... it's basic coverage. And for the operator, it's especially difficult to guarantee performance if the user is on the edge of the cell, or if mobility means that lots of high-priority people suddenly cluster together (eg a gaming convention).

Realistically, the only way to give reasonable, statistical *guarantees* and SLAs for mobile data QoS is to deploy lots of femtocells and/or use WiFi offload or other cast-iron approaches to coverage (a ton of DAS, or repeaters). And then actually do measurements and tests on what the indoor coverage is really like. That means rather than "drive tests", they ought to be doing "walk tests" inside buildings.

So.... lots of femtos or WiFi. Which, almost certainly, will need to be (partly) run over other telcos' networks. And connected via... the Internet.

In other words, any operator hoping to buid a non-neutral mobile Internet service had better hope that either:

- the fixed-access Internet *is* neutral, or..
- ... that their CFO is happy to pay for lots of QoS/prioritisation from the fixed broadband guys themselves, for guarantees for the femto traffic (and signalling).


Anonymous said...

I don't agree. A better analogy is the European train fair "class" system. While facilities are nicer in first class, the main reason people opt for this over a 2nd class ticket is that the probability of actually having a seat in first class instead of standing upright in a fully packed 2nd class compartment is higher.
No seat guarantees, no sla. If the train is late, you're not getting there any sooner.

scaleyboy said...

Dean, your observations are dead right and I've been banging on about this very point as well. There are an increasing number of interesting OTT zones where telcos, who otherwise see other people's OTT activities as an imposition, are beginning to rely on the neutrality of others for the delivery of their own services. I'm building a little file of them... my guess is the list will grow fast

Anonymous said...

Curious about the impetus for this post. Are operators trying to offer this kind of guarantee? As you point out, it's an extremely impractical promise to make, and I can't imagine any reputable operator guaranteeing consistent above-average service (unless they took a very flexible definition of "above average"). While I do see this as the sort of thing a lot of people would like to do, I doubt anyone finds it feasible enough to do so. Which might inspire another question: what are some (relatively) realistic alternatives that are deliverable today?

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous - interesting re: train fares, but I just don't buy the notion that for Internet access, anyone would buy a no-guarantee "upgrade", especially if they didn't get proof of whether it helped or not.

There would also need to be a "congestion API" so that people did not pay for priority when it wasn't needed.

Scaleyboy - totally agree. I've been tracking this for several years, and I reckon it's the telco industry's "dirty little secret". Direct competition will triumph over committee-led interoperability.

Anonymous #2: at the moment, not being offered, no. Although I've heard people suggest that it might be more plausible with LTE. It *is* possible with fixed-line broadband though, as it's much more deterministic.

The best alternative is for the network to give the application / content provider as much assistance as possible to optimise performance - a congestion API, recommendations on network-friendly protocols, anything that might help in creating rate-adaptive apps and so forth.

Paulo said...

The SLA deal between the parties could be performance based, including penalties if below predefined limits. This could be assessed by a built in resident software from an independent party.