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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

EU Net Neutrality Laws: Kroes must ignore ETICS/ETNO proposals for sending-party pays on the Internet

Note: I'm working on a separate full blog post about network quality, purpose, flow-management & the Internet (reflecting my frequent Twitter fights with Martin Geddes). This is a specific set of comments about European Net Neutrality and the upcoming draft law coming from Neelie Kroes at the Commission.

There is something of a battle of words/blog-posts going on between the Commission's spokesman Ryan Heath and a Net Neutrality advocate called Jeremie Zimmerman and his organisation Quadrature du Net. It centres on a leaked draft of the upcoming European telecoms laws which will govern (article 20) network traffic management and related issues. In particular, the debate centres on the concept of a European "specialised service" or "Assured Quality Service" or ASQ, which appears to be some form of prioritised data traffic.

My perception is that Kroes is trying to find a way to allow certain (limited) ways to let telcos offer differentiated broadband services, but without reflecting the idiocy of earlier proposals' like ETNO's attempts to enforce termination-type regimes on the public Internet. I think Kroes (and telecom vendors) are doing a poor job at articulating the idea that such managed services would be for "new broadband use-cases" such as broadband-connected health monitors, environmental/fire sensors, CCTV, corporate homeworking or whatever.

Most discussion seems to centre on the perceived risk of Facebook / Google / Broadcasters etc buying "priority lanes" to the detriment of other web startups. This is a pointless and irrelevant strawman argument.

Personally, I think Hell would freeze over before FB or YouTube or the BBC actually paid for users' traffic or QoS, unless forced. The so-called sending-party pays / 1-800 model for mobile apps or even most fixed-line TV services is an unworkable myth, as I elucidated in last year's report on the topic. It's much more likely that telcos will end up paying Google for premium server access, than vice versa as long as decent Neutral Internet access is provided at the same time, as a pre-requisite.

A lot of this confusion relates to the continued conflation of the terms "broadband" and "Internet" by many in the industry. I wrote about this important semantic difference here.

The intent of any new Net Neutrality legislation must be to ALLOW & encourage the creation of new non-Internet broadband services, but to DISALLOW any attempt to change the current business model of the Internet, which is working fine. In other words, it needs to be framed in a way to help create NEW revenues and opportunities for network operators, without allowing them to restrict or tax the current businesses of Internet-based content and apps players.

My view is that the contended document from the Alcatel-Lucent led project ETICS is a prime example of what must NOT happen. It is written from the same flawed school of Internet Economics as the risible "sustainable Internet" nonsense from ETNO-sponsored consultants ATKearney a couple of years ago. ETICS utterly fails to make a clear distinction between the Internet and any new forms of QoS-managed access. I would hope that the European Commission treats it with the contempt it clearly deserves.

The ETICS model might be a feasible idea for separate non-Internet access based services (although I doubt  the commercial & technical practicality), so I have no problems with it being tested, as long as it is done in a fashion to "quarantine" it away from today's Internet. If it's successful, it will need to win from adjacency on its own two feet, not be superimposed on the existing Internet access/peering business.

My view is that prioritised data / managed services are OK as long as:

1) They are kept completely distinct from Internet access (ie are delivered from servers with a direct connection from the telco's infrastructure or elsewhere, not transiting the public Internet)
2) They are not branded as Internet services, or sold in a bundle with Internet Access. This may mean that they also cannot share the top-level brand with an Internet-based content or application source (ie no "YouTube Premium", but something like "GasCo Energy Meter & Control" or "FireCo Sensor & Alarm Service" would be OK). Possibly, this could be done by disallowing such services to use the Internet DNS, or perhaps prohibit them from running within normal Internet browsers, or on apps delivered from Internet App Stores. They need to be ringfenced from the public Internet as far as possible.
3) There is no or limited implicit negative/deprioritising effect on Internet Access concurrently running on the same access/transport connection, arising from the use of managed services by the same customer or their neighbours
4) There is no attempt to create something that looks like a "termination fee" model for public Internet services. Either the user pays for specific managed services (like IPTV today) or perhaps an upstream content/app provider is allowed to pay (eg an employer paying for home-workers' connection) as long as it is 100% clear that the service is not related to the Internet (see point 2)

As Martin Geddes will no doubt point out, point 3 is mathematically and technically very hard/impossible. That, however, is not the EU's problem - it is vendors' and operators' problem if they want to offer such services. I propose that a very simple legal approach is used - managed services should ONLY be sold by telcos on networks which provide Internet Access with guaranteed minimum speeds & maximum latencies, not those marketed with maximum speeds. As long as the customer is guaranteed a decent minimum level of open, best-efforts Internet (howsoever delivered), then the rest of the broadband service is fine to experiment with.

Yes, within that Internet connection there's the same vagaries from all the various Internet applications fighting for capacity, but that's fine. The technical implementation of this can be left up to the operator - could be a cable MSO using separate dedicated RF frequency bands for Internet vs. non-neutral services; could be using some clever contention/policy-type software & network kit; could be lighting up two fibres or separate wireless connections and so forth. It doesn't matter - the bottom line is that all this happens without the user's Neutral Internet access being notably affected from today's model, except the telco has to provide a guaranteed minimum speed/latency as an SLA (measured appropriately, perhaps with a standard benchmark set of apps determined by the regulator).

It's quite possible that all that is too hard. In which case, the operator concerned (outside Finland at least) always has the option of just not selling Internet access at all.

To reiterate - I'm looking for Kroes and the Commission to articulate a way to allow the creation of new, ringfenced and clearly-labelled managed broadband services. But there needs to be extremely clear safeguards and harsh sanctions to protect the availability, price and usability of today's as-neutral-as-possible public Internet alongside. There needs to be clear blue water - in branding, marketing and technology - for any non-Neutral "specialised services" compared with the Internet. The Commission must ensure that telcos and their vendors avoid both consumer confusion and duplicitous or clumsy ETNO-style attempts to alter current Internet business models.

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