Net Neutrality: Does this mean we can’t have Premium Service Offers?

Optus CEO Allen Lew kicked off a firestorm at the CommsDay Summit when he talked about offering a premium Netflix (or other video content) service with guaranteed performance. In Lew’s speech he suggested that OTT video providers could pay for better end-to-end connectivity by working with telcos to ensure a better service for their customers.

Lot’s of people are crying foul: saying that this would violate the principle of net neutrality, wherein network providers are obligated to treat all traffic — regardless of its origin or content type — equally. The idea is that all services offered to customers should have a level playing field in competing with one another for delivery across the Internet.

In the USA, net neutrality has been an issue, with ISPs being accused of deliberately throttling specific types of traffic, such as Netflix video streams.

However, Lew wasn’t talking about slowing down or blocking Netflix or other subscription video on demand (SVOD) traffic. He was talking about offering a guarantee around service experience. In the networking world we call this traffic engineering.

The reality is that the Internet is a network of networks, and there are many places where congestion can occur.

Today’s Internet services are delivered on a best effort basis — meaning that any given packet is delivered only if there’s sufficient bandwidth to do so.

Sometimes best effort just isn’t good enough

In periods of network congestion, packets are dropped. For most data oriented services, such as web browsing, the management of dropped / resent packets isn’t noticeable. But with real-time services like VoIP or video this behind-the-scenes network management can impact the quality of a subscriber’s experience. If you’re watching a Netflix video, you might see long periods where the video content is being buffered. If you’re making a VoIP call, the call quality might degrade to the point where you can’t understand what’s being said.

The diagram below shows a simplified version of the traffic path required to deliver a video service. In this example, congestion can occur within the DSL access network, within an ISPs internal network, anywhere in the wider Internet, and even at the video content host.

Simplified Video Delivery-Market Clarity

What Lew is proposing is a premium grade service that goes beyond linking up with Optus at the end of their network to something that is much deeper. He’s talking about using the Quality of Service (QoS) features that are built into network protocols, wherein traffic that requires real-time delivery for optimum performance is treated accordingly.

In the corporate world, QoS support is considered necessary to maintain acceptable performance for latency sensitive traffic such as VoIP or video, so that this type of traffic isn’t subject to performance degradation caused by other applications vying for bandwidth.

NBN products will be available with NBN four traffic classes for exactly this reason — to guarantee the performance characteristics necessary for optimal delivery of different types of applications. NBN Co charges a premium for advanced traffic management, as do most data network providers around the world.

Is Optus’ proposed premium video service really any different to what has been available to the corporate market for decades?

No, not really. The key difference is that Optus is suggesting it be done in collaboration with OTT players to ensure a smooth service offering spanning the entire end-to-end network. Whilst Optus could also offer a premium “traffic aware” service to consumers, this service would necessarily be limited to those parts of the end-to-end traffic path within Optus’ control. By selling the premium service to OTT providers, traffic management could be extended along the entire path, thus ensuring a premium grade quality of experience.

So long as consumers aren’t forced into a more expensive premium grade service, and discriminatory practices aren’t applied to other video services running across a standard Internet connection, a premium service option is a good thing.

About the author: Shara Evans is internationally acknowledged as a cutting edge technology futurist, commentator, strategy advisor, keynote speaker and thought leader, as well as the Founder and CEO of Market Clarity.

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