Posted on November 16, 2010 by Herman Schepers — Comments Off
By Herman Schepers and John Jolliffe
Several hundred eager policy enthusiasts crammed into the European Commission conference centre last Thursday for a daylong debate about “net neutrality.” Whether the attendees were rewarded with startling insights or new thoughts is not entirely clear, however.
Moderating the first session, Robert Madelin — the most senior civil servant under Commissioner Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda — tried manfully to coax panelists and speakers from the floor beyond their prepared positions and to engage in a debate. But by and large the conference felt like old news, a mere repetition of statements made a few years ago by various stakeholders within the telecoms value chain during the drafting process of the latest telecoms regulatory framework. Concepts from the first session were repeated throughout the day in later sessions: choice, competition, transparency, bundling, quality of service, and the suitability of the not yet enacted regulatory framework to deal with net neutrality issues.
There were moments of light relief though: In response to the assertion by a representative from BT that choice was the ultimate guarantor or consumer welfare, Madelin, clearly enjoying himself, expressed skepticism and asked exactly what BT’s minimum quality of service commitment would be. No reply. The representatives of various national consumer associations had Madelin’s ear. Not surprisingly consumers are frustrated not understanding what they are getting in terms of broadband services. One of the critical issues from the consumer perspective is the perceived difficulty in switching suppliers. Due to triple and even quadruple play service packages consumers often feel themselves caught in a “walled garden.”
And later, tiring of the reluctance of some stakeholders to back up their complaints on net neutrality with data, he called on the BBC and Skype to be good corporate citizens and share details of abuses with the European Commission, something they seemed reluctant (at least in public) to do. And, ever practical, he rebuffed the strangely idealistic appeals from the U.K. government representative to reflect first on the definition of “open Internet” before developing practical approaches.
There were some good presentations made by Cisco and AT&T, but the messages were again repetitive: focus on anticompetitive behaviour, difficult to hide bad practice due to openness of the Internet, traffic management is needed to provide “fit for purpose” networks and so on and so forth. Instead of spending the day at the conference one could have skipped the morning session and simply read the excellent overview produced by the Commission based on the net neutrality consultation.
Indeed, the whole day hinged on the concept of evidence and what can be done in practice: Chris Marsden, an academic, got the biggest laugh when he expressed skepticism at the idea of 600 people turning up to a conference to insist that there was no real problem. His comments were a direct challenge to the network providers’ insistence that companies have no incentive to restrict user access. But in the absence of clear abuses, and with the new laws not yet in place, the message from the day appeared to be “let’s wait and see how it all pans out.” Commissioner Kroes appeared at the end to add her soundbite to the proceedings: Consumers should realize their economic power and vote with their feet if not satisfied with their provider — for example in the case of blocking Skype services on certain mobile networks. She expects that the implementation of the 2009 telecoms regulatory framework by Member States provides sufficient safeguards for what is and isn’t permissible behaviour. In Kroes’ words “competition is the open Internet’s best friend,” while “Regulators … are our best insurance policy.”
Certainly the national regulators and BEREC will have their work cut out policing the new framework. On all the key principles — transparency, the distinction between managed services and best efforts, the criteria for imposing QoS — further guidance will be needed. ARCEP gave a detailed presentation of the criteria developed in France for managing net neutrality, ensuring that the debate will rumble on long after May 2011 when the new rules come into force.