Net neutrality could hinder 4G

Keith Willetts, TM Forum
20 Aug 2009
00:00

The internet has been in widespread use for more than 15 years, but it seems every so often the specter of net neutrality looms over what would otherwise be a fairly peaceful existence. Now that 4G wireless has come along with its promise of hundreds of megabits per second to devices over a pure IP packet-switched network, you can bet legislators and regulators are keeping a keen watch on what transpires.

Any time you get a significant bump in technology, like the shift from 2G and 2.5G to full 3G in most parts of the world, and the exponential leap to 4G that many subscribers will see in the next 12-to-18 months, you also see the long arm of the law try to smack down any semblance of differentiated services.

My view has always been that regulators have it fundamentally wrong by trying to regulate at the network level instead of the service level. I have to wonder if being in a 4G world will make the current thinking we have about legislation and regulation seem pretty silly, or if government entities will continue their crusade to try to equalize internet access.

4G changes the regulation game

I believe 4G will be a game changer when it comes to regulation. With the possibility of blazing fast speeds coming to smartphones, is there any sense forcing legislation that would prevent customers' ability to pay for better classes of service?
If during the recent healthcare debate in the U.S., President Barack Obama said everyone is going to get basic government-provided healthcare with no option for private care, you can bet there would be rioting in the streets. Take a look at other types of markets that offer different levels of service and quality. You don't see regulators stepping in if someone wants to pay more to get their package to its destination faster, or if they want to get premium options for their new car.

But that's essentially what net neutrality proponents are saying about communications. Is this mentality really going to serve a world where people are eager and willing to pay for subscription services that give them HD-quality video with the highest service quality levels and speeds? Do providers really want to be forced into a position of having to decline this potential new business and new revenue streams because short-sighted bureaucrats passed a law saying they couldn't charge premium prices for premium services?

Network carriers straddle monopoly and competitive markets

So we find ourselves in this bifurcated world where we have network carriers that tend toward a natural monopoly in a low competition type of market, and well as an incredibly buoyant, competitive world sitting right on top of it delivering new services and doing clever things. What is the boundary between the two? Is it merely all-you-can-eat IP packages, or is it a much more rich and complex boundary where underlying enabling technologies are provided by enabling technology suppliers that may not all be like AT&T or Verizon. Instead, they could be companies like Apple, Amazon or Google.

Down the road, service providers could even become part of these new technology players or divisions of them, or there might be a whole host of new companies that enter the picture to deliver services.

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