There is a fundamental contradiction at the core of Neelie Kroes' new telecoms package, which she billed as "the single biggest thing the European institutions could finalise in 2014 to boost growth and jobs."
Announcing a raft of so-called net neutrality measures, Kroes, vice president of the European Commission, said: "We want to support a thriving app economy and possible new Internet industries in Europe. Therefore, companies are still able to provide “specialized services” with assured quality (such as IPTV, video on demand, apps including high-resolution medical imaging), so long as this does not interfere with the internet speeds promised to other customers."
While the business world should be applauding the fact that telecoms operators will be able to offer customers different tiers of service, how can that be done in the cellular sector without impacting the quality of other people’s Internet access? Radio spectrum is a finite resource, so if you give more to one customer, there is less for other customers. It is a zero-sum game. And in Europe, there isn’t a great deal of mobile bandwidth to go round (see separate post).
As you dig into the detail of the proposed package, it becomes clear that the net neutrality proposals are somewhat circumspect. The European Commission’s “plain language guide” says “those specialised services must not impair in a recurring or continuous manner the general quality of Internet access.”
Passing the buck to national regulators
How do you define recurring and continuous? That buck has been passed onto the national regulators. The guide says that national telecoms regulators should “ensure that Internet access continues to be available without discrimination with quality that reflects advances in technology, and that specialised services do not impair other Internet access. They should monitor this, and the impact on cultural diversity and innovation.”
The proposals do offer the regulators a stick to help them enforce net neutrality, saying “national regulators can require that internet providers offer a minimum quality of service.” However, a minimum quality of service is going to be very tough to police in a mobile environment – if an individual’s internet connection drops when they stray into a black spot not covered by the local base station, will the mobile operator be deemed to have failed to provide a minimum quality of service? How do you measure a subjective user experience?
As reliable and quick Internet access becomes ever more crucial to businesses, mobile operators are inevitably going to have to make tough choices about how to allocate bandwidth in busy cells. As the “Internet of Things” takes off, cars, heart monitors, CCTV cameras and a host of other machines are going to be competing for mobile bandwidth with smartphones and tablets.
The Chinese approach
Europe isn’t the only region grappling with these issues. Densely-populated East Asia is in the same boat. Presumably with the blessing of the government, China Mobile, which now has more than 27 million machines and 700 million people connected to its networks, has established a centralised and dedicated network for the Internet of Things. European mobile operators may have to take a similar approach, but it is not yet clear how national regulators would react to valuable radio spectrum being cordoned off for machines.
China Mobile is also making extensive use of Wi-Fi hotspots, putting the unlicensed technology on a par with its 3G and 4G mobile networks (see graphic). Europe will also need more fixed mobile convergence to achieve the European Commission’s delicate balancing act.
To the Commission’s credit, the telecoms package does make some encouraging noises about Wi-Fi and small cells. Its plain language guide says:
- The Commission supports the use of RLAN / Wi-Fi access points without the need for individual authorisations.
- There should be no restrictions on private users sharing their RLAN / Wi-Fi with the public.
- In addition, unnecessary restrictions to deploying and interlinking RLAN access points should be removed; the public should have more access to the RLAN "hotspots" of large companies, public bodies etc.
- The EU should set out technical specifications for deploying and using low power small-area wireless access points...to encourage wider use without unnecessary individual planning or other permits.
In the most densely-populated parts of Europe, the battle for bandwidth could be bloody.