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More haste, less speed needed for mobile data networks? Making the best of net neutrality.

Broadband connections, whether on fixed or mobile networks, tend to get sold to customers on the basis of their headline (or ‘up to’) data speed or on the size of the monthly data allowance. Aside from the obvious additional issue of the price, that’s often about all that seems to differentiate broadband offers.  Regarding  the headline speed, service providers are quite reasonably coming under increasing scrutiny because those speeds are rarely available to customers. On average, Ofcom estimates that UK download speeds are only 45% of the advertised ‘up to’ speed.

For mobile networks it’s even harder to make specific claims about differentiation between offerings from different networks. As well as experiencing the same contention issues of fixed networks which make  it hard to guarantee service when there are other heavy users in the same area, mobile connections are also subject to interference from surrounding cells, signal levels which can vary by factors of thousands over distances of a few centimeters, and even users daring to hold their phones.

Meanwhile, the “net neutrality” debate is raging around the world about the extent to which it is legitimate to manage traffic in order to avoid  a small number of heavy users massively degrading the service for everyone else. Verizon and Google in the US  have come up with a joint policy proposal, which argues that mobile networks do need such management.  However, the FCC appears underwhelmed by the proposal. The European Commission is also consulting on the issue, while Ofcom in the UK is  joining the debate.

One argument (and broadly the situation which applies in Europe today) holds that no regulation is necessary, and traffic management should be permissible, because consumers will vote with their feet against excessive restrictions. This relies on the broadband market being sufficiently competitive that consumers can easily switch providers and have other providers with different policies to switch to. The counterargument is that this is all too hard for consumers and the internet should be free and open without discrimination to any service.

An important approach to resolving this is for regulation to focus on transparency, so that consumers are told in  clear terms when traffic management is applied. This may also require some definition of the types of traffic management which are permissible.

The quantity of mobile spectrum, the viable size of network and the spectrum efficiency are all finite  and are bound to lead to  capacity limitations from  place-to-place and from time-to-time. It then seems to me that traffic management is essential to protect consumers, ensuring they get a service which is useful despite the excesses of others in the network. It’s a bit like a trip to the pub: one loud and obnoxious drinker can spoil the enjoyment for all, so I have no objection to the publican having powers to eject those who breach accepted norms.  I would however object if only one type of drink was available.

Further,  the application of appropriate traffic management process may have another positive side effect for consumers. Systems like LTE are capable of assigning very different quality-of-service levels to different users, even though they share the same spectrum. So one user could get a best-efforts web browsing service , contending with other users on the same service for the resources allocated for this, while others can gain access to a guaranteed bit-rate service which ensures (within reason) that they’ll always get a solid service with a given level of quality.

This feature of LTE is much less talked about than LTE’s speed, but is potentially far more significant. I hope it leads to a wider range of choices for consumers and ultimately a better service. Here’s an example from the fixed world, where the service is sold as much on its latency as its speed.

So less focus on speed and more  on other service quality dimensions could be good for mobile operators and consumers alike, while supporting the need for transparency under any future net neutrality regulations.