Growing Confusion Over Network Neutrality

By Gary Kim March 25, 2014

Network neutrality is a tough concept to understand, much less explain. But matters are not helped when virtually anything becomes subject to network neutrality concepts. When Netflix and Comcast negotiate an interconnection agreement, that is framed as a network neutrality issue.

When Apple tries to create a managed streaming video service with Comcast, that also is framed as a net neutrality issue, even though “managed services” specifically are exempted from the now-vacated Federal Communications Commission network neutrality rules.

Comcast is in a unique situation, as it is bound by the presently-defunct FCC network neutrality rules under terms of a consent agreement related to its acquisition of NBC-Universal.

On the other hand, a “managed service” is not covered, either by the former FCC net neutrality rules or the NBC-Universal stipulations. Comcast likely would be willing to make the same concession if it is allowed to buy Time Warner Cable.

Some see the proposed Apple streaming service as a loophole in the network neutrality rules. It is not: managed services specifically are allowed.

The reason for the exception is practical, in large part. As all services and applications are delivered over a single Internet Protocol-based network, a prohibition on quality of service would mean no telco could assure customers of its branded voice services quality or video entertainment service quality, either.

Conceptually, a couple of different outcomes ultimately are conceivable. A prohibition on anything but “best effort” access, for any conceivable service or application, even if created and owned by the owner of an access network (TV service or carrier-branded voice), might be one outcome, though that seems unlikely.

Both voice and video require predictability of packet flow, and it is unlikely consumers, providers or regulators would want to risk the level of unpredictability “best effort only” would represent.

But if isochronous services (apps highly dependent on orderly and predictable packet arrival) are to be delivered with assured quality--especially when consumers pay for them--then management will ultimately be required.

One approach might be to support all such services and apps with a “managed” approach. That might apply to all such services, no matter who owns them. So any over the top provider of voice, video conferencing or video entertainment might be able to use any mechanisms available to a facilities-based ISP.

Content delivery networks provide a model for that approach.

It is conceivable that “best effort only” rules for consumer Internet access somehow are redrafted in ways that will pass court review. It is possible Congress could mandate such rules.

In all scenarios, the issue of the distinction between “best effort only” and “quality assured” packet delivery will continue to be raised, because some apps require quality assurance, in the form of predictable packet delivery.

But not all issues are, or should be, subsumed under the “network neutrality” framework. 

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

Contributing Editor

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