The World Wide Web's quarter life crisis

Thursday 13 March 2014 19.01
The debate on 'network neutrality' has been forked into two equal but commercially and legally differing spaces: cable and mobile
The debate on 'network neutrality' has been forked into two equal but commercially and legally differing spaces: cable and mobile

Cable and mobile networks are playing by different rules when it comes to winning and keeping customers, writes Niall Kitson.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web now is a good time to look at the plumbing that makes it work, who ‘owns’ it and the regulatory framework that will maintain it as a fair space for comment, debate and cat videos. 

The debate on ‘network neutrality’ - the idea that communications networks should not be subjected to political or commercial influence - has been forked into two equal but commercially and legally differing spaces: cable and mobile. 

Service providers have argued that differing technologies and network capacities forces the creation of a double standard. In the US, especially, Google has championed the idea that ‘mobile is different’ owing to smaller network capacity and inability to compete with the speeds offered by 3G in comparison to fibre and the crippling contention that come with oversubscribed services. 

As telcos begin offering 4G connectivity, the speed and contention strands of the debate should melt away, although data allowances and pricing will ensure mobile packages will not be competing with home broadband on a like-for-like basis.

Usage patterns between cable and mobile may be different but two recent stories point to further ways in which the net neutrality debate could be skewed in favour of either Business or Government.

On 23 February, the New York Times reported an agreement between Netflix and the largest US Internet service  provider Comcast that would have the streaming movie service pay to provide a better service for its subscribers.

Although no information on the deal’s value was confirmed, it is understood to be in the millions of dollars.

To date, Netflix had secured agreements under its Open Connect initiative that removes middle-men who provide services with an ‘on-ramp’ to broadband networks but this is the first time it has paid for the privilege.

Network neutrality activists have called the deal an example of ‘paid prioritisation’ which sets a precedent where companies could outbid their competition to deliver better user experiences.

Open spaces

The same week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes - architect of the EU’s Digital Agenda - said a total of €3.5 billion from a combination of industry and Commission funds would be made available for the research, development and roll-out of 5G mobile networks.

Laudible as the EU position is, the strategy has one weakness: no one is sure what constitutes 5G. Are we looking at a race to bring faster carrier-specific dumb pipes to market or something more interesting?

I got some insight into what a ‘something more interesting’ might be at a briefing by Ericsson earlier this week.

Ericsson’s view of the ‘networked society’ at the level of infrastructure is not so much about more speed - though that is part of the picture - it is also about consistency of service. Taking the example of gaming, mobile or console, the increased reliance on cloud services like Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Now for collaborative gaming and online stores like Steam or Game Center having a consistent service is vital to any brand looking to cultivate and grow a subscriber base. 

Based on the necessity of delivering an engaging customer experience, paid prioritisation is about to become a fact of life. Whether that cost will be passed along to the consumer remains to be seen. That Netflix is keeping its fees static suggests service providers will absorb the cost, negating the risk of losing subscribers to competitors.

Preservation orders

Can Net Neutrality at least be preserved in Europe? It certainly can. Plans for municipal Wi-Fi are finally coming into place around Dublin and if the Government follows through on plans to use the ESB’s network to deliver broadband nationally then commercial interference can be kept to a minimum.

Alternatively, going for a 5G mobile solution with money from Europe could do away with the need for on-ramps, while providing competitively priced mobile connectivity with consistent quality of service across the 28 EU member states.

If the European plan is successful we could see a cable market struggling on a territory-by-territory basis and a mobile market with cross-territory reach, both tussling to handle new load-intensive applications. 

The search for consistency of experience will end in finding fragmented approaches to deliver it. 

Public or private. Cable or mobile. Truly, the Web is suffering from an identity crisis. It’s a tough contest to watch from a neutral’s perspective.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie