Friday, October 24, 2008

Net neutrality, in the light of recent broadband policy developments


It's interesting to revisit the net neutrality debate, in the light of continuing discussions and developments around next generation access (NGA).

The net neutrality issue arose in the US, as a result of telcos feeling rather left out of the party as far as the revenues generated by sites and services such as Google, eBay, iTunes, Amazon etc are concerned.

The telcos' argument is essentially that, as the above services simply couldn't function without the underlying infrastructure they provide, why shouldn't they receive a slice of the revenues they generate?

This would essentially let internet service providers treat some websites differently than others, effectively creating a fast lane on the internet. The telcos argue that in television, radio and press, distributors have always been closely entwined with content creators, so why should the Internet be any different?

Proponents of mantaining net neutrality argue that the Internet is like no other mass medium because it is so chaotic and few companies can exert control over content and the means of accessing it. Net neutrality is at the heart of the internet's diversity.

More on net neutrality here:

...and an interesting take on net neutrality in a mobile context here:

So what's all this got to do with the current debate about NGA in the UK? Well, lots of discussions have focused on the business case for NGA - what services will NGA provide, how much will consumers be prepared to pay for them and, most importantly perhaps, how much and how soon are telcos likely to see a return on the not insignifcant investment necessary to deploy NGA?

As yet, no one seems to really know, and it's very difficult to secure such investment against a "best guess". An interesting point was made at a recent Broadband Stakeholder Group event: that broadband technologies are by their nature disruptive and unpredictable. It's impossible to know what users will do with the extra bandwidth until you give it to them and let them experiment.

The rise of social networking and Web 2.0 technologies was cited as an example - who could've predicted that FaceBook and MySpace would have been so successful and so profitable in such a short space of time?

Going back to the net neutrality debate, and thinking about my own situation, if someone offered me a 50 or 100Mbps service for, say, £50 a month, I just wouldn't be interested. My usage at home simply doesn't justify such an upgrade and I can't see that changing any time soon. I don't think I'm a luddite by any means, but I don't use file sharing services, I don't use the iPlayer or any other video on demand services and I'm not interested in online gaming.

I would imagine many others would class themselves similarly, but at the same time I'm sure there are people who would have their ISP's arm off for the bandwidths I've mentioned above. Though I do wonder how many of them there are out there. Probably more than you'd imagine, if people's monthly expenditure on contract and pay as you go mobile telephony is any yardstick.

My point is that the two-tier Internet, much feared by the proponents of net neutrality, could actually come about as a result of consumer demand, rather than imposed from above. Whether that's any better or worse I'm not sure; this is certainly an area to watch.

I personally think we're likely to see much greater diversity in the range of consumer broadband services available, moving further and further away from the one size fits all approach. There is already a fair amount of differentiation, chiefly based on bandwidth caps and fair use policies in terms of amount of data downloaded, but I think we're likely to see much more diversity in terms of the range of different services (and their related tariffs) that different offerings provide, even to the point that you simply can't do some things on lower bandwidth/cheaper services that you can on premium services.

Watch this space I reckon...

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