As you may recall, back in September the European Commission finally came out with its proposals for net neutrality, part of its larger "Connected Continent" package designed to complete the telecoms single market. I learned yesterday that the European committee responsible for this area, ITRE (Industry, Research and Energy), has launched something of a stealth consultation on these proposals. Stealth, because neither I nor anyone else that I know covering this area, was aware of them, which is pretty bizarre.
Unfortunately, that consultation closes at the end of business today. That means we have very little time to comment, although speaking to the people running the consultation, I get the impression that they won't apply the deadline too strictly if you let them know that something will be coming through a little late. There is no formal document outlining the terms of the consultation – just bring up the points you think important. Submissions should be sent to [email protected] and/or [email protected] Here's what I've written:
Given the very short time I have to contribute to this consultation, I'd like to concentrate on one key aspect, that of net neutrality. In particular, I'd like to urge ITRE not to allow specialised services to be offered, since this will in fact destroy the very net neutrality that the European Commission claims that it is protecting in its regulations. In what follows, I will try to explain why.
Alongside things such as IPTV, more "serious" uses like telemedicine are frequently invoked to justify permitting specialised services with guaranteed quality of service – for example speed, or latency. But this is really just a clever trick on the part of the telecom companies and their lobbyists, who are the main drivers of this attempt to kill net neutrality.
After all, if an ISP is able to provide a guaranteed quality of service for such specialised services, running on the general Internet, then there is no reason not to provide that guaranteed quality of service for everything on that connection.
Whenever the guaranteed speeds or latency are required for telemedicine (or IPTV), all the user has to do is close down all other applications. In that case, the entire connection is devoted to the "specialised" service, which is able to make use of the quality of service guarantees. With all the other services shut down, it is as if the specialised service enjoys privileged treatment – it does, but only because there is nothing else running. This allows quality of service to be provided without damaging net neutrality: all IP packets are treated equally, but sometimes the user chooses to send only one kind of IP packet over the connection.
This shows that it is not necessary to kill net neutrality in order to provide services that require particular quality of service guarantees. But there is a very real danger that the European Commission's proposals to allow specialised services will do just that. The "protection" for net neutrality misses the point.
If a startup is in competition with an established market leader, and the latter is offering a "specialised service" with a guaranteed quality of service, while the newcomer is not (because it can't afford to pay ISPs the requisite fees for doing so), the incumbent will have a huge advantage. That's because by definition the specialised service will run better than those running on the "ordinary" Internet, which are bound to be perceived as slow or unreliable compared to the one given preferential treatment. It doesn't matter that the specialised service doesn't impair the standard service "in a recurring or continuous manner": it's simply human nature to prefer the service that runs better, and the specialised service will, thanks to the quality of service guarantees. In this way, innovation will be disadvantaged and discouraged, and deep-pocketed market leaders entrenched.
The tragedy is that this danger is entirely avoidable. If ISPs were allowed to offer quality of service guarantees for additional payment, just as they can offer faster services, or greater monthly bandwidth, but not tied to any one service, then end-users could use this connection for both established players and newcomers alike, enjoying a superior technical experience for both. They could then decide on the merits of the content of the services which to adopt, rather than being pushed in the direction of established companies able to afford deals with ISPs to provide superior connections compared to those available to startups.
The European Commission's stated aim with the new telecoms regulation is "to build a connected, competitive continent", but the lack of meaningful protection for true net neutrality will actually reduce competitivity by placing barriers in the way of new entrants. Fortunately, the European Parliament now has its say on the matter, so there's a chance to add precisely the safeguards we need to protect net neutrality fully, and with it innovation and competitiveness.
I urge you to do so by removing from the European Commission's proposals the option to offer "specialised services" that are unnecessary and that will destroy the net neutrality that has made the Internet the stunning success we know today.