To appear as an Editorial in the May-June 2015 issue of IETE Technical Review.
With rapid technological innovations, the internet has, in a short period, grown into a disruptive social force today. The internet has different layers: the content layer (supported by people who develop the content and the applications), the logical layer (consisting of machines which function using algorithms, protocols and standards for the transmission of data packets) and the physical layer (consisting of end point devices such as computers, smart phones and tablets). Two types of people use the internet. Those who simply access the internet for information and the other who develop innovative services and applications using the internet as a medium. The network operators or internet service providers invest in the internet infrastructure consisting of switching and transmission abilities.
There are three primary means to access internet: wireline, wireless and satellite options. Satellite internet option is least preferred because it is expensive and is no good for ordinary folks like you and me. In wireline option, one can use either a pair of twisted copper wires or a fiber optic network. Copper telephone lines are too slow when used to access broadband internet. This problem is solved to some extent by using optical fiber up to the neighbourhood node and distributing the signal from the node to the user using the copper lines. But this heterogeneous network can never be a substitute for an all fiber optic network. The experience of accessing broadband internet using a single strand of fiber is unmatched. Fiber optic networks not only have large data rates (100 Gbytes/s) but are also symmetric i.e. they offer equal speeds either for uploading or downloading.
In the recent past, with the advent of low cost smart mobile phones and tablets, accessing the internet using the wireless or cellular data networks has become a convenient and easy option. Being connected while you are mobile feels great. It is therefore not surprising that globally, the number of mobile-connected devices exceeded the world’s population in 2014. A tenfold increase is expected in the global mobile data traffic between 2014 and 2019. This represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57 % from 2014 to 2019. “Smart” devices will be more than 50 % of all devices hooked to the mobile network by 2019. In India, between 2013 and 2014, the mobile data traffic has increased anywhere from 75 % to 95 % depending on the network operator .
Irrespective of the means you use to connect to the internet, the fundamental aspect of internet is its openness which permits equal opportunity of access leading to unbridled freedom to express and to listen. Net neutrality refers to the ability of users to freely choose services and to access the information made available by the content providers . However, internet service providers have the means to cherry-pick services and applications leading to service discrimination . While it is the legitimate right of the network operators to charge the users for the amount of data consumed (e.g. 2 or 3 Gegabytes per month), the issue becomes complicated when they start examining the data packets passing through their networks with an intention to discriminate one user from the other or one traffic destination from the other. This gives them the ability to prioritise or de-prioritise the users and points of traffic origin and destination selectively for commercial reasons rather than technical performance . Since internet service providers are tempted to maximize their profits by prioritising the services, it can lead to selfish behaviors destroying the neutral nature of the internet. This concern is the core of the “network neutrality” debate .
Professor Susan Crawford of Harvard Law School, who has written a thought provoking book on the future of high-speed Internet access, believes that if net neutrality disappears the high-speed internet will be accessible only to the rich since it will be beyond the means of most of us . Intense debates about the sustenance of net neutrality have originally been associated with wireline networks in European Union (EU) and the United States. However, in the recent past, net neutrality in wireless or cellular mobile networks has become a passionately debated topic, particularly in countries like India and elsewhere. Net neutrality is a complex issue in the mobile internet when compared to the wired internet due to both technical reasons and the way the mobile network sector has evolved during the last decade .
Wireless networks will never be able to provide the capacity even remotely near that of fiber optic networks, as capacity constraints are intrinsic to the former. Even a migration from 3G to 4G networks will only improve the mobile network capacity by approximately three times. As a result, with the number of mobile users growing, the capacity constraints will ultimately make the wireless networks more crammed when compared to the wireline networks. Until we reach the point of congestion, all the packets of data that pass through the network operators’ servers can be treated equally i.e. what comes in first will go out first irrespective of their origin or destination. This is called the “best efforts system” . In this system, each user gets a momentary access to the maximum bandwidth of the channel using statistical multiplexing. On an average, therefore, no user feels that their experience of using the network is compromised.
It is important to note that net neutrality should not be misinterpreted as ““every packet must be treated identically.” The network should be indiscriminate with regard to the origin or destination of the data packets. However, based on the need, to take care of the congestion and to provide a fair access to the network resources, the operator can shape the traffic or even drop the data packets . Network operators, therefore, routinely use a technology solution called ‘‘Needs-based discrimination’’ to beat the finite capacity of the network. In this scheme, certain data packets jump the queue and come to the front to deal with the congestion. Without this discrimination, latency sensitive data such as VOIP or media player applications can be affected, impairing the user experience.
However, what is worrisome and what can seriously affect net neutrality is not the “needs based discrimination” but the “active discrimination” of data packets by the network operators. In “active discrimination”, operators can give priority to certain data packets even if the network is not congested. This prioritisation can be based on a prior financial arrangement with an application or content provider. An application provider, therefore, can get preferential treatment by entering into a commercial agreement with a network operator. In a wireless network, it can lead to a very undesirable situation due to capacity constraints.
As an example, let us assume that two thirds of the network operator’s capacity is consumed by a small number of service or application providers, with a financial might for availing the active discrimination. Since the wireless network capacity is limited, the other majority users have to scramble to use the remaining one third of the network capacity. As a result, the less fortunate application providers or start-up entrepreneurs who cannot pay for this active discrimination will be poorly visible to the internet users. This preferential access to the wireless internet to the application and service providers with deep pockets can lead to an indirect control of the internet by the network operators. In addition, in a discriminatory regime, since the advertising revenue will always be attractive to the network operators, they may abandon their neutral role and degrade the quality of the non-priority lane to mine greater profits from the priority lanes .
Until a technological breakthrough takes place to enhance the wireless network capacity, the “needs based discrimination” of data packets may continue to be an essential part of wireless internet to enhance the user experience. No one should have any complaints about it. However, it is the “active discrimination” of users by the network operators for monetary gains that is detrimental to the very survival of neutral internet.
The question that needs our attention, therefore, is: should the network operators be given a free hand to run the network the way they want ultimately leading to a highly discriminatory and non-neutral internet? If the operators gain complete control of the wireless internet and become discriminatory, will the wireless internet, still remain a social force of unrestrained information exchange as it is today? Will it still encourage and nurture innovative new entrepreneurs and application developers? The answers to these questions should be clear to you by now.
Shouldn’t we, therefore, as academicians and scientists, stand up and use all our legitimate means to stop this “active discrimination” and protect the net neutrality?
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