Dominating the political agenda on both sides of the Atlantic, the debate about Net Neutrality is far from resolved.
But have we lost sight of what this issue is really about?
Speaking at the ANGA COM congress in Köln, Mike Fries, President and CEO of Liberty Global, was asked for his viewpoint on the Net Neutrality debate. His response was immediate and unequivocal. “In my thirty years in the industry, I have never encountered a topic that is less well understood, that is so misinterpreted, misused, and I might even say abused, by different people in the ecosystem of the debate than this.”
With his global perspective, Fries’ frustration is understandable given the timing of his words in the early summer of 2014. The FCC’s examination of the Net Neutrality issue had pitched US commentators, lobbyists and PR machinery at levels of near hysteria. Not many issues of technical legislative detail have US citizens demonstrating in the streets of Washington DC and command headline slots on primetime satirical TV shows.
The Net Neutrality debate in Europe has thus far been conducted in calmer tones, but there’s no doubt that there’s just as much to play for. Fries’ concern that the issue is too important to be hijacked is true on both sides of the Atlantic.
Freedom to grow
When the internet was created 25 years ago, one of the core principles set out by its founders was that there should be a level playing field for those using the internet, irrespective of size and provenance. That principle has been one of the cornerstones of its phenomenal success. The other has been freedom from prescriptive regulatory measures which could have stifled investment, innovation and growth.
Yet the internet of today is a very different place from that of 1989 and the desire to intervene and regulate is perhaps inevitable. The exponential growth of traffic could hardly have been predicted by those early web visionaries. Networks have become increasingly congested, not just by sheer volume but by the variety of types of applications and services with very different needs such as HD video. An open internet remains at the heart of what is being defended; a fair and transparent way to manage the ecosystem to allow the widest variety of services not only to co-exist but to thrive and grow is now the political football.
Access all areas
Fries sees a simple split between two different issues which are being confused. On the one hand, it’s about consumers and the need to ensure that any consumer can go anywhere they want to go on the internet. This, he said at ANGA COM, is a given – and not just for moral or societal motivations. “As a network operator I have no interest in upsetting consumers. And I have no interest Dominating the political agenda on both sides of the Atlantic, the debate about Net Neutrality is far from resolved. But have we lost sight of what this issue is really about?
in upsetting content providers. What good does it do me? I lose on both sides.” On the other hand is the issue between corporations, the question of who pays for building and maintaining the internet highway, and how to manage the volume and complexity of traffic to deliver the best quality service to end users, which Fries maintains is what this debate is really about.
A B2B debate
The task in hand for the European Institutions, looking at this issue as part of the “Connected Continent” regulation, is an unenviable one. The heat and noise surrounding Net Neutrality in the US, coinciding with the European elections, has had an inevitable ripple effect. Yet the ingredients in the debate in Europe are not an exact mirror of the US situation. There is of course the need for harmonisation, and where European Member States have initiated their own regulatory initiatives then a levelling of some kind is not only desirable but necessary. Yet backstop powers already exist for National Regulatory Authorities to intervene against service providers when necessary. So any threat of commercial abuse is already taken care of with existing and specific regulation.
The European Institutions need to achieve a considerable feat – that of creating a regulatory infrastructure which is future proof enough to allow continued innovation and investment whilst negating the desire of individual Member States to take standalone action. And all in a context where regulatory powers already exist.
Managing the traffic
At the heart of this lies the unequivocal need for ISPs to apply effective management tools to their networks to ensure quality of service, and the corresponding requirement for them to do so in a transparent, fair and non-discriminatory way. Finding the regulatory balance to enshrine these principles whilst allowing the web to thrive looks set to dominate the agenda for many months to come.
The proposals made by Mrs Kroes in September 2013 are striking the right balance and Cable Europe supports the Commission’s solution. The Parliament and Council should not jeopardise a proportionate outcome, which will keep a thriving internet ecosystem intact.