Net Neutrality Commentary: Manish Singh

Ed: The following net neutrality question-and-answer session recently took place over email; here is an excerpt:

Moderator: Google and Verizon are forging an agreement and shared statement of principles on maintaining net neutrality. However, the suggested legislative framework that Google and Verizon are forging applies only to wireline networks rather than wireless ones.

Only a requirement for transparency by operators is relevant to wireless networks: firstly to consumers in terms of service offerings and capabilities, and secondly to developers and content providers about the network management systems that the operator has in place to guarantee delivery of services to customers.

The agreement is certainly a step in the right direction for the industry to tackle the contentious issue of net neutrality. However, by not applying the suggested principles for wireless networks and operators, Verizon and Google do not address the fastest-growing segment of connected consumers.

This leads to the following questions:

Why not apply the same “net neutrality” principles for wireline networks to wireless networks? Why do we have to make the distinction according to the type of network?

Manish Singh: My strong opinion is that wireless networks are inherently different from wireline networks. Unlike wireline networks where throwing more fibre at the growing traffic is an option, wireless networks’ capacity is limited by available spectrum. Throwing more spectrum at the problem is an unsustainable solution to meet the booming demand. Of course regulators need to work aggressively as well and free up more spectrum, but that in itself is not the whole solution.

For limited spectrum there are three key solutions available to address this problem for wireless networks while keeping the networks efficient, manageable and give fair usage to consumers:

  1. Improve Spectral Efficiency; new wireless technologies continue to do that and push the limit of bits/s/Hz. LTE improves spectral efficiency by 4X over its predecessor
  2. Spectrum Re-Use; commonly known as cell-splitting. Femtocell is pushing spectrum re-use to its limit
  3. Manage Limited Capacity; DPI holds the key for efficient real-time traffic management and policy enforcement on the mobile networks

In the “limited spectrum, limited bandwidth” environment of a wireless network, is achieving net neutrality a realistic objective?

Manish Singh: It is not a realistic objective, nor even the right one. Spectrum is limited and in mobile networks it is a shared resource shared by all users in a given cell site. Numerous operators’ traffic statistics show that something like 5% of the users in the network are consuming roughly 80% of network capacity, which leaves the remaining 95% users starving for resources. THAT is the problem that needs to be fixed to achieve fair usage of available limited spectrum.

Or do the inherent constraints and limitations of the wireless environment mean that operators are compelled to manage their network resources more closely, according to customer demand, service type and tariff – in ways that could be seen to counter the “net neutrality” belief?

Manish Singh: Absolutely, the network resources need to be managed. Like any other limited resource, spectrum must be managed and used efficiently. Keeping the networks profitable is in everyone’s interest. GSM proved this best: it is deployed in 200+ countries and now more than 4B people worldwide have mobile connectivity. Simultaneously, GSM networks paved the way for investments in 3G and now 4G and we need to keep it that way as we move forward.

It is equally important to limit an operator’s ability to block or throttle certain types of applications or content on their network if they have adequate capacity on the network. A walled garden serves no good for the greater society.

Policy definition needs to take two key elements into account to formulate the right policy: the need to strike the right balance with giving users complete choice against limited network capacity and keeping the network profitable.

What can the wireless industry do to underline its own credentials in delivering a fair and equitable wireless Internet to consumers? Should the wireless industry agree its own, separate “Best Practise” principles and guidelines for “net neutrality” and quality of service for consumers?

Manish Singh: Historically the walled garden wireless networks have not helped their cause. Most of the 3G operators waited too long and it was iPhone’s arrival that really opened up the mobile broadband in a significant way. The Google-Verizon framework is a good starting point for wireline networks and serves as a blueprint for wireless operators to jointly come up with a “Best Practices Framework”. The framework must strike the right balance on three distinct fronts:

  1. Freedom of Choice – to the consumer and to the applications and content they want to access
  2. Balancing Supply vs. Demand – enabling fair usage of limited resource
  3. Sustained Profitability – ensuring we continue to see investments in the future of the mobile industry

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