The argument that a highway should carry all types of traffic—cars, buses, bullock carts—in the same lane without any discrimination is not tenable. Highways have different lanes, with different speed limits. Charging higher toll rates for faster lanes is economically justified. The information highway is no different
The term ‘net neutrality’ was coined by Columbia University professor Tim Wu in 2003. It means equal access to all web content on the internet. Proponents of net neutrality have asserted that all lanes on the information highway—i.e. public internet—should have the same speed. Last year, US President Barack Obama expressed his support for freedom of the internet and net neutrality. But the move is being opposed by major telecom companies and cable operators.
ISPs are not regulated by telecom laws in the US. The Telecommunications Act 1996 is applicable only to telecom operators. To regulate ISPs, so as to provide net neutrality, the Act will have to be amended by the US Senate. Despite legal hurdles, the FCC decided on February 26 by a voice vote (3-2) to put the internet in the same regulatory regime as telephony. The latest FCC ruling bans business practices which provided faster lanes for companies such as YouTube and Amazon Prime for video streaming applications. Opponents have called the FCC plan a dangerous government overreach which would drive up consumer costs and discourage investment.
We in India should take an independent decision on network neutrality based on public consultation. The issue has come to the notice of the regulator, following a public outcry relating to higher tariff for the VoIP announced by Airtel in December 2014. Latest 3G and 4G networks employ internet protocol for all types of calls. They have a ‘next-generation network’ architecture separating the transport layer from ‘service provision’. Such calls employing IP protocol ride on top of IP transport services and are provided at the application service layer, by a sub-system called the ‘internet multimedia service’. 3G/4G services employ IPv6 that provides for faster lanes so as to ensure low latency to voice and video calls, which are part of multimedia services. Low latency (delay) is essential to ensure QoS to real-time services. In case service providers are able to offer a voice quality with a mean opinion score of four or higher—called ‘toll quality’—the operator is justified in demanding a higher tariff than the ISPs, which carry the call on the public internet. Public internet does not guarantee any QoS and is called best-effort service. Telecom operators have to invest a large amount in upgrading their network to make them QoS-enabled.
The internet was born about 30 years ago, as a DARPA project. It was meant for file transfer between universities. It was not engineered to carry time-sensitive voice and video calls. Since last decade, the IETF has made a lot of effort making the internet capable of carrying time-sensitive traffic. For this, they released two important specifications—DiffServ and IntServ—meant to provide QoS on the internet. DiffServ provides different lanes for time-sensitive traffic. IntServ reserves resources to handle time-sensitive calls across the network. The internet must be updated by implementing these two specifications, which have largely been ignored by ISPs. They have been implemented only in small private networks called intranets. Even IPv6 provides for flow control to provide application-level QoS. This upgrade requires additional investment by ISPs as well as telecom operators. The argument that a highway should carry all types of traffic—cars, buses and bullock carts—in the same lane without any discrimination is economically not tenable. Even highways have different lanes, with different speed limits. The highway authority is economically justified in charging higher toll rates for faster lanes. The information highway is no different in concept.
The internet can be neutral only for similar type of traffic and similar websites. For example, all websites containing text files should be equally accessible and travel on the same lane without any discrimination. However, video websites run by a cable company, for example, should provide faster access to customer premises equipment to give the customer a quality of service equivalent to CATV service. Net neutrality should not come in the way of upgrade of the internet to the next generation network which must provide separate lanes for time-sensitive traffic and non-time-sensitive traffic. The former being delay-tolerant and the latter (voice & video) delay-intolerant. Many US universities are working on the ‘next-generation internet’ and they should be incentivised. The internet should not be condemned to remain best-effort forever. It must be upgraded by QoS building blocks to guarantee toll quality to multimedia services.
The author is former member, Trai and Telecom Commission