The BBC reported today that the EU is preparing to water down their rules on net neutrality to permit some traffic shaping for unspecified services. As I discussed here recently, the structure of the European broadband market is very different to the US. On this side of the pond most people have a choice of service providers over their local infrastructure, so if your current ISP excessively fiddles with your traffic then you have the option to migrate to another.
The key in Europe is not whether traffic is messed with but whether customers know about it. What Europe really needs is net-transparency more than net neutrality.
The EU is right that some services may benefit from prioritisation, and customers may thank ISP’s that do it sensibly and in their customers interests. In the corporate world deep packet inspection and traffic shaping are important business tools – they make sure that critical real-time and online services keep performing while huge files and print jobs are spinning around their networks.
The reality of networks is that applications where we measure response times in minutes or even hours are often better at grabbing bandwidth than the ones we measured in milli-seconds. An email with a huge attachment has the luxury of knowing precisely how much it needs to send and can break the content into the minimum number of packets to send across the network. A fast-paced game or a voice call can’t know how and when traffic will be sent, it only knows that it needs to shovel the traffic out as quickly as possible, squeezing commuter packets in between the juggernaut email packets.
In the business world, traffic prioritisation links the network to the business by creating carefully tuned commute lanes, allowing key services to overtake crawler traffic.
Non-neutral networks are a good network manager’s key to being part of the business rather than just a cost centre.
The problem with public networks is that ISPs veil their traffic policies so customers can’t know how their internet experience is being messed with until after they’ve signed up for a 12-month or longer contract. It creates suspicions that policies are set to degrade competing media services (see Comcast v Netflix in the US) or to simply minimise the impact customers have on their networks.
Personally I’d be quite happy if my ISP tuned their network so that file transfers took a back seat to voice calls – so long at they told me.
I’d be even happier if they gave me a dashboard that allowed me to set my own priorities, which has been possible for some time and is becoming increasingly so.
So the key is net transparency more than net neutrality.
This is where the infrastructure operators could have a role. Every open access operator is essentially a market owner – service providers vie for customers over their infrastructure. If regulators required operators to publish anonymised market data, just as financial markets do, showing how their networks were being used, and for service providers to publish their traffic policies then customers could begin to make incrementally more informed choices, and the market may begin to respect and serve its customers.