A “Predictable Quality of Experience” is far superior to “Net Neutrality”
The US FCC has moved decisively in favour of Net Neutrality for the fixed broadband access networks. They’ve responded to some very strong opinions from lobby groups that all Internet traffic should be treated equally by ISP’s. The pressure is on to extend this to mobile networks. The popular clamour for net neutrality is driven by an assumption that traffic “discrimination” is a negative thing. But the right sort of “net discrimination” is essential to achieve a far superior goal of a predictable “Quality of Experience” across the broadband Internet.
Let’s begin with the case for net neutrality. If an ISP invests in sufficient network capacity so that their access network is capable of meeting the very peak demand at every place and at every time then there is absolutely no conceivable reason to discriminate between different types of data traffic. With the right pro-investment policies put in place by Governments (and a bit of help in rural areas) it is probably technically and economically feasible to create a useful “net neutral” fixed broadband Internet…eventually!
But what happens meanwhile? And what about wide area (national coverage) mobile networks where it will never be economically feasible to keep up with the data speeds and capacity of a fixed broadband fibre optic connection? Such wide area networks needs radio spectrum under 2 GHz to deliver ubiquitous coverage. Mankind has only a finite bandwidth under 2 GHz. This is where the “net neutrality” debate moves from utopia to the real world. When the installed network capacity is not able to meet the very peak demand in all places and at all times congestion inevitably follows. In an IP network this congestion comes confusingly in infinite shades of grey from barely perceptible to hopelessly intolerably bad. We have lived with a tolerable level of congestion in busy periods since the very start of the Internet. The TCP/IP protocols have been very good in getting failed data sent again and again. As more and more vital and economically important applications and services are built onto our broadband networks this “happy go lucky” best endeavour connectivity will not suffice.
Our broadband networks of the future have to offer a consistent “Quality of Experience”. All peak capacity constrained networks have to be smart enough to know when sufficient capacity is not going to be achieved momentarily and have predictable rules of graceful degradation.. For example if a group of consumers are watching streamed TV on their smartphones and the National Grid is trying to send a message to isolate an over loaded electricity power sub-station and both are competing for the same instantaneous broadband network capacity – it is in the consumers’ interest that the network “discriminates” whereby the picture quality of the TV streaming glitches for a brief moment. It’s an extreme example to make a point. Net discrimination can be a good thing. But the rules of the game have to be transparent and operate in the consumer’s overall interest and that of the digital economy more generally
As every sector of our economy modernises itself through greater digital connectivity we need smart government pro-investment policies and smart regulations that drive fixed broadband access networks (and wireless pick-up points) towards a “net neutral” end goal but drives capacity constrained networks (eg national mobile networks) in a different direction towards the right sort of “net discrimination” based upon transparent rules of prioritization. The country needs a future fixed and broadband infrastructure that aspires to deliver an “Equality of Experience” but must always deliver a “Predictable Quality of Experience” in the circumstances likely for most networks where there is occasionally not enough capacity to meet peak demand. In this way the right environment will be created to enable a huge future market in trusted applications to power an expanding digitally based economy.