Reviewing net neutrality

I find it interesting to see how two of Canada’s most important telecom trading partners are approaching net neutrality.

Recall, earlier this year I wrote “Canadaā€™s policy framework for net neutrality is among the most prescriptive and restrictive.” A month later, I asked if Canada should be considering a review of its network neutrality policy.

South of the border, we see the FCC looking at imposing network neutrality regulation through a recategorization of internet services under Title II. And the UK’s regulator, Ofcom, has recently concluded a year long review and it has announced that the UK is heading in the opposite direction, revising its network neutrality guidelines to relax earlier rules. Ofcomā€™s Director of Connectivity, Selina Chadha, is quoted saying:

The net neutrality rules are designed to constrain the activities of broadband and mobile providers, however, they could also be restricting their ability to develop new services and manage their networks efficiently.

We want to make sure they can also innovate, alongside those developing new content and services, and protect their networks when traffic levels might push networks to their limits. We believe consumers will benefit from all providers across the internet innovating and delivering services that better meet their needs.

In the UK, certain aspects of net neutrality are imposed under Parliamentary legislation. Ofcom is responsible for monitoring and ensuring compliance and cannot change the legislation itself.

Ofcom’s statement on the new guidelines sets out:

  • ISPs can offer premium quality retail offers: Allowing ISPs to provide premium quality retail packages means they can better meet some consumersā€™ needs. For example, people who use high quality virtual reality applications may want to buy a premium quality service, while users who mainly stream and browse the internet can buy a cheaper package. Our updated guidance clarifies that ISPs can offer premium packages, for example offering low latency, as long as they are sufficiently clear to customers about what they can expect from the services they buy.
  • ISPs can develop new ā€˜specialised servicesā€™: New 5G and full fibre networks offer the opportunity for ISPs to innovate and develop their services. Our updated guidance clarifies when they can provide ā€˜specialised servicesā€™ to deliver specific content and applications that need to be optimised, which might include real time communications, virtual reality and driverless vehicles.
  • ISPs can use traffic management measures to manage their networks: Traffic management can be used by ISPs on their networks, so that a good quality of service is maintained for consumers. Our updated guidance clarifies when and how ISPs can use traffic management, including the different approaches they can take and how they can distinguish between different categories of traffic based on their technical requirements.
  • Most zero-rating offers will be allowed: Zero-rating is where the data used by certain websites or apps is not counted towards a customerā€™s overall data allowance. Our updated guidance clarifies that we will generally allow these offers, while setting out the limited circumstances where we might have concerns.

Professor Mark Jamison of the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center writes that “net neutrality is a concept whose time has passed.” Instead of relying on rules tailored for the digital age, the FCC is planning to bring internet service providers under Title II. These were regulations originally developed for monopoly wireline telephone services. opens the door for all the old laws to apply.

Professor Jamison notes that the proposed regulations are introducing a ‘general conduct standard’ “that grants the FCC authority to prohibit anything it deems ‘unreasonable.'” He argues that in an era of such rapid technological advancements, regulators need to make decisions (based on sound evidence) and adopting a ‘light-handed regulatory approach.’

Should the CRTC undertake a review similar to that which was done by Ofcom? Like the UK, would Canada find that the current environment may be restricting the ability to develop new services and manage networks efficiently?

Does the CRTC have the resource capacity to take on yet another review as it implements the government’s Online Streaming and Online News Acts?

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