The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will vote Thursday to repeal the net neutrality doctrine, sending the Internet back to the way it was before the current rules took effect in 2015. This decision has sparked predictions that the Internet will soon be run by rapacious Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that charge too much, throttle competing services, and block access to websites they don’t happen to like. But leaving the current net neutrality rules in place would in fact have the unintended consequence of preventing ISPs from supporting the digital services that fuel tomorrow’s economy.
Like all corporations, ISPs want to maximize profits and thwart competitors. Net neutrality aims to rein in this tendency and preserve competition. The doctrine redefined Internet providers as “common carriers,” a term describing any public entity that transports goods or people. The federal government regulates common carriers to make sure they provide certain basic services equally to all customers without bias.
According to this rule, all Internet data must be treated equally by ISPs, the telecom, and cable operators that provide web access to households and businesses. ISPs are legally prevented from blocking or slowing down traffic from services that compete with their own.
ISPs shouldn’t block their competitors—there is universal agreement on this point. But while treating all Internet traffic equally does keep ISPs from limiting competition, it also sharply curtails their ability to offer “fast lanes”—different levels of service for different types of applications.
For example, if you’re reading the headlines and have to wait 300 milliseconds for a page to load, you won’t notice the delay. But if you’re watching a football game, a 300-millisecond lag during a critical play will spoil your experience.
ISPs work hard to prevent such delays. They know that all network traffic is not equal. Packets of streaming video have entirely different requirements from those of a site with only text and images.
These differences will come into sharp relief two years from now with the first commercial deployments of 5G, the next generation of mobile telecommunications. One hundred times faster than today’s 4G networks, 5G will support the millions of devices that make up the Internet of Things: parking meters, streetlights, elevators, security cameras, and other connected devices.
The Internet of Things, and the 5G connectivity that supports it, will give us greener buildings and factories, more productive farms, safer cars, and 4K video streamed almost everywhere. But each of these services will make unique demands on the network—demands that can best be met if ISPs offer different levels of network performance tailored to each service. For example, a shipping container crossing the ocean needs extended wireless range; virtual reality’s high-resolution video takes serious bandwidth; and driverless cars will require ultra-low latency to ensure that signals reach the brakes in time to prevent a collision. In a world where every packet of digital data gets treated the same as every other, this would not be possible.
5G marks the next phase of a digital revolution whose arrival policymakers can accelerate or retard by pulling on the right levers. Net neutrality, aimed at protecting innovation, would have the unintended consequence of deferring investment in the network on which society increasingly depends. That is an outcome we cannot afford.
We need regulations that promote innovation, ensure fair competition, protect consumers, and give the companies that operate the network enough flexibility to support digital services that don’t exist today.
Although the Internet is global, networks are built and maintained by companies regulated by national governments. Different countries are reviewing their regulations now, for good reason. Although well-intentioned, net neutrality is a blunt instrument: effective sometimes, but too simple for the diverse applications of tomorrow’s Internet.
Brian Chamberlin is market director, video solutions at Huawei Technologies Company Limited.