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Regulation alone will not deliver net neutrality

Wednesday, November 12th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

The key to maintaining net neutrality is not in regulation, but in companies changing their business model, according to an expert.

Futurist Tom Cheesewright said one answer could be charging more to consumers who want to access bandwidth-heavy services like video streaming, but it should not be to have different pricing for suppliers of that content.

Net neutrality, or the principle that all internet data and traffic should be treated equally, has become a controversial issue in the United States, with debate starting in Europe as well.

It is based on the idea that service providers should not be allowed to manipulate the flow of data to users, charging more for certain traffic.

Advocates say any moves to limit net neutrality will create internet fast and slow lanes, and compromise the openness of the web.

As America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers changing the rules on data traffic, US President Barack Obama has said that open net access should be seen as a basic right, and there should be no paid prioritisation system.

And outgoing European digital commissioner Neelie Kroes previously described a package of telecoms reforms – including those around net neutrality – as a “balanced proposal”.

The package of amendments to telecoms legislation, including rules enshrining net neutrality, is being reviewed by EU member states, with final agreement hoped for by the end of 2014.

But according to Mr Cheesewright, who advises organisations including commercial companies, health trusts, and local councils about how to look ahead to the future, the answer does not lie in regulation.

He told Cable.co.uk: “For me at the moment net neutrality is basically an economic bargaining tool.

“You’ve got a bunch of broadband service providers, a bunch of people who move bits for a business, whose pricing, whose businesses, were set up in an era that was effectively pre-Netflix, that was pre these huge commercial services shipping large volumes of data down to us as consumers.

“And then a Netflix comes along and puts these huge burdens on their ability to deliver both volume and quality of service around this data and they go, ‘whoa hang on a second, we’re in a position where we can’t now go and charge consumers lots more for accessing this.

“'So we’re going to go back to source and go back to the people trying to push this service over our network and say, you need to pay’.

“So for me mostly it’s an economic argument about the viability of these service providers because they can’t afford to deliver a good experience for these new services that are coming over the top while maintaining our access to everything else.”

But he said charging more to certain streaming service providers presented ideological problems, by threatening the "fundamental openness" of the internet.

He said: “As soon as you make any step to interfere with that openness people are concerned that you slow that innovation, you start to damage it, and you start to stagnate.

“And actually, you’re arguably supporting businesses that shouldn’t be supported because if they can’t operate in that environment the business is wrong.

“The answer should not be regulatory, the answer should be in changing the business.

“Perhaps the answer is that broadband should be more expensive for consumers who want to access these services.

“But the answer almost shouldn’t be, in my opinion, to start to have differential pricing for the supplier of that content.”

Mr Cheesewright said the long-term answer could be a new technology platform or a variety of other solutions, but the short-term answer would definitely be compromise.

He added: “We have to find a way to make it economically viable for us as consumers to get the services that we want and for innovative service providers to be able to deliver the services that they can in order to keep progress going.”

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