Keeping the internet open and innovation uninhibited in a 5G world
Senior Manager, EU Government Affairs and Public Policy
Back in autumn 2015, we congratulated EU lawmakers on delivering nuanced and balanced rules on net neutrality. Rules that would protect the openness of internet access services and at the same time maintain customer choice and freedom to innovate.
We have recently submitted our comments to the BEREC consultation on the evaluation of the rules and their impact since entering into force in April 2016. To be clear: we continue to support the Regulation and believe it provides the right framework open to innovation. Our concerns expressed towards BEREC have nothing to do with the Regulation itself.
Unfortunately, the evidence from the first two years points in the direction of “gold-plating”. Certain provisions have been interpreted in a manner that constitutes additional requirements and restrictions, above and beyond the safeguards adopted by EU legislators. The consequence is a dampened ability to invest in new technology solutions and service offerings.
The evaluation is therefore highly welcome as it provides an opportunity to correct the course in time as we are transitioning towards 5G and digitising our businesses, vertical industries and societies.
Firstly, we are concerned to see the tendency to enforce the rules an ex-ante. This has resulted in some decisions seemingly taken on a theoretical, assumed impact on end users’ choice rather than an ex-post observed impact. The gap between the market and the regulators’ understanding of the Regulation has made compliance increasingly unpredictable. The consequence is significant hesitation to invest in new service developments.
Secondly, we believe the safeguards for “specialised services” have in some instances been turned on their head into de facto regulation of specialised services. Most concerning is what appears to be an interpretation that only services which do not already exist through an internet access service can be delivered as a “specialised service”. This is irrespective if we are talking about a consumer Video-On-Demand service or a business video conference solution. Both exist in the market and “work” as a best effort service. However, for some consumers, and certainly for enterprise customers, having such services delivered at a specified level of quality is important if not essential.
We fully recognise there are safeguards: specialised services should not be used to create ‘an internet dirt road’ or be used to circumvent the open internet. At the same time, we believe there should be choice as long as you do no harm and we ultimately believe that is the intent of the Regulation’s language.
Looking ahead to 5G, we welcome the strong political support behind this transition and the recognition of its potential as one of the key enablers for the digital transformation of our economy and society. However, if we want to be able to take the full advantage of the capabilities 5G brings and enable digitisation, it is critical to reconsider the ex-ante approach and make sure there is room to experiment with new services and business models, both for content and applications that already exist, as the above-mentioned examples, and for entirely new areas like telemedicine.
The reason 5G is central to digitisation lies in new capabilities to dynamically allocate network resources. Such resources are tailored in functionality to support a particular use case and associated value chain. Every resource is ‘right-sized’ to its precise requirements. These logical slices will allow different use cases to be supported on a common, shared infrastructure, in principle in an infinite number of slices for an infinite number of use cases from IoT services (connected car, smart city, e-health/connected hospital) to specific enterprise services to internet access services.
If we limit ourselves in our interpretation of the net neutrality rules through equating connectivity with (consumer) internet access services, we will effectively restrict 5G to mobile broadband use cases only. Of course, 5G will and should bring added benefits to consumers too, supporting seamless connectivity and enabling content to be streamed on the move without buffering and dropped connection. However, the enhanced mobile broadband use case does not provide a sufficient investment case for 5G as it does not take advantage of the full set of capabilities the technology can provide.
In short, customers should be free to choose and operators should be free to innovate in offering added value services to all user segments. They should be free to do so through new business and partnership models. We believe this holds true in equal measure for today’s networks and for the future 5G and 5G enabled networks. However, to the extent we do not have a regulatory framework in place that allows operators and the wider ecosystem to use the full technological capabilities at their disposal, the risk is that 5G will simply not happen. Or at least when it does happen, it will be confined to delivering some extra spectral capacity for consumer internet access but fail to deliver on its key promise of digitising business, driving economic growth and changing the way we work, travel, communicate and play in the 5G era.