Peter Nowak: Net neutrality advocates get a headache over 5G

It has been a good year so far for advocates of the open internet, with the European Commission’s decision this week to uphold net neutrality principles the latest win against self-interested telecom companies.

But the concept of net neutrality – that the internet should be free from undue interference from the companies that provide access to it – will face another big test soon as 5G wireless networks loom.

5G, or the fifth generation of wireless network technology, carries with it the ability for service providers to discriminate between different types of traffic. More so than with existing 4G, 5G will actually encourage such discrimination by allowing carriers to effectively slice up their networks into channels that can be used for different purposes.

Inevitably, they will try to prioritise and sell these channels and thus provoke new net neutrality battles once 5G networks start to arrive around 2020.

The European Commission’s ruling this week, in line with what government bodies and regulators in a number of countries have already done, will also undoubtedly come into conflict with the new technology.

According to the new rules, European internet service providers will have to treat all web traffic equally, without favouring some services over other, going forward.

European officials have also closed a pair of loopholes found in early drafts of the rules by prohibiting the creation of “fast lanes” for specialised services and by forbidding zero rating, or the practice of exempting certain applications from users’ monthly data caps.

Earlier this year, India rejected a zero-rating plan by Facebook and its wireless partners to offer free mobile data in exchange for picking which applications users could access. Indian regulators found that allowing zero rating would ultimately harm businesses and applications that weren’t included in the free package.

Meanwhile, in June, a federal appeals court upheld the US telecom regulator’s move last year to reclassify internet access as a telecommunications service, from its status as an information service. The change in title now gives the regulator the ability to enforce its net neutrality rules, which are similar to what Europe and countries such as Canada, Brazil, Chile and Japan have implemented.

As in every jurisdiction where there has been a debate on the issue, wireless carriers opposed the new European rules. In June, providers including Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, Britain’s Vodafone and France’s Orange signed a manifesto that promised slower 5G network investment if strong neutrality rules were adopted.

Their opposition wasn’t – and isn’t – on purely philosophical grounds. Besides higher speeds and fewer delays in data transmission, 5G networks will be highly virtualised and software driven, meaning that carriers will have far more control over the traffic that goes over them than they currently do. Coupled with the capability to handle higher loads of data, carriers will be able to dedicate portions of the networks to specific ­applications.

5G networks are, for example, expected to be key enablers of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, which will go a long way toward making self-driving cars feasible. Those vital communications, however, will probably need to kept separate from regular network traffic for obvious safety reasons.

While no one is likely to object to that particular kind of specialised service, the same isn’t likely to be said when carriers inevitably try to prioritise less-sensitive traffic for simple revenue-generating reasons.

Sooner or later, wireless operators will try to carve off channels of their 5G networks to game companies or video providers, guaranteeing them faster and more reliable streaming while leaving every other non-paying application to contend with the rest of the open web.

The world of wired broadband, where this sort of thing has been possible for some time, has seen some ­examples. In the US, for example, cable provider Comcast teamed with Microsoft in 2012 to deliver Xbox game and video content without it counting against users’ monthly usage caps. Comcast claimed the traffic was being sent over its private IP network and not “the public internet”.

The cable company discontinued the Xbox offer last year but soon replaced it with Stream TV, a live television service that also doesn’t count against usage caps. As with the Xbox offer, Comcast claimed Stream TV is delivered over a separate part of its network.

Net neutrality supporters and regulators around the world better get used to such arguments because there’s going to be a lot of them once 5G lets carriers split up and sell portions of their networks to the highest bidders.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species

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