Net Neutrality: Not Neutered

When Heavy Reading ran its first event on policy control and deep packet inspection (DPI) back in April at the CTIA show in Las Vegas, I asked several vendors about the threat posed both to them and their customers by net neutrality. "It's no longer an issue," they told me with great self-assurance, "because surely everyone now recognizes that making networks applications-aware and subscriber-aware is in everyone's interest, and the tools to help that happen are much more sophisticated than they used to be. It's a win-win!"

But that's not quite how things look now, and I suspect that at our Policy Control & Deep Packet Inspection Virtual Tradeshow next Tuesday, the net neutrality issue will get more airtime than it did in April, for it most definitely hasn't gone away, at least in the U.S. Last month, the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set out some proposed new rules in the area, which said, among other things, that network operators must not block or degrade lawful traffic. What that really means in practice is anyone's guess, but a maximalist interpretation would be that it would prevent operators from giving priority to certain applications or subscriber traffic.

If that's really what happens, it would pit an immovable object – namely, Web developers and Web-based service providers and portals – against an irresistible force – namely, telcos and other network operators. Already, telcos are deploying DPI and policy tools at breakneck speed, as any vendor will tell you, because some are having a hard time keeping up with demand. But if net neutrality doesn't ultimately allow those tools to be used except to passively analyze traffic and control a few obviously undesirable apps such as viruses, what happens next?

In reality, the issues may be more nuanced than they at first appear. The idea that everyone gets the same Internet service and that every application is treated exactly the same already looks like some kind of Internet creation myth, since it patently isn't true, and wouldn't benefit users if it was. Yet at the same time, the principle that, other things being equal, broadband providers should create as open an environment as possible and let a thousand service flowers bloom is clearly a good one.

The real issues here, as the FCC half recognized, are competition and transparency. In the U.S., especially in the wireline market, there's not enough competition, with most broadband markets little more than a duopoly. By fixing that, and ensuring that regulation forces full disclosure of how network tools such as DPI are used, regulators will have done most of what's needed.

Anything more risks closing off service innovation that might actually be in the interests of users – and that, surely, is the principle that really matters. Yet the onus is very much on telcos and their suppliers to demonstrate exactly why the use of tools such as DPI gear and policy servers might ultimately benefit consumers and businesses. Right now, the vociferous community of Internet bloggers is almost uniformly hostile to the idea and is making most of the noise on the Net, so there's plenty of evangelizing for telcos to do.

We will be discussing these and many related issues at the Policy Control & Deep Packet Inspection Virtual Tradeshow on Tuesday, and we encourage you to register, listen in, get some education on these vital topics, and make your views known. See you on the virtual trade floor!

— Graham Finnie, Chief Analyst, Heavy Reading

arch78 12/5/2012 | 3:52:15 PM
re: Net Neutrality: Not Neutered HI,
Where can i find the on demand versio of reffered tradeshow ( DPI/Policy control)
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