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Net Neutrality: good for cloud computing?

Net Neutrality – the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally and shouldn’t be meddled with – has hit the headlines again.

This April we have seen the EU take a major step towards the enforcement of net neutrality across the 28 countries of the European Union.  And we have seen what’s viewed as an equally large step in the opposite direction in the US with the FCC looking to favour new rules that many claim abandon the core principles of net neutrality.

Supporters of net neutrality vastly out-number those against, or at least they are certainly a lot more vocal.  Proposals to allow network service providers to receive money from content providers in exchange for supplying a prioritised Internet delivery appear to infringe on the equal access /equal treatment principles around which the Internet has grown up.

Supporters are concerned that abandoning commitments to net neutrality will lead to a two tier Internet – a super quick highway for those that can afford it, and a congested B-road for the rest of us to contend with.  As one US commentator states in this article:  “It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.”

Road Neutrality ceased a long time ago

Opponents of net neutrality insist that the Internet should not be subject to Government interference, and that free market forces should be allowed to play out in order to permit innovation and investment.  They point to the fact that overall consumer Internet speeds are increasing rapidly and that consumers are demanding high quality content which they expect suppliers such as Netflix and Apple to supply dependably and reliably.

Certainly they are correct to assert that not all traffic is the same and certain applications such as video and voice data particularly need extra speed and bandwidth – whereas services such as email and file sync do not.  Furthermore they state that a commercial offer to prioritise certain services makes sense for the provider , the consumer of that service, and indeed the non-consumer of that service.  As Internet Economics and Policy commentator, Roslyn Layton, suggests in this article : “Net neutrality means that I have to pay for my neighbour’s Netflix, even though I don’t watch it myself”.

So those on both sides of the argument claim to be representing the best interests of the end consumer.

Who is right, and what does all this mean for the consumer (and supplier) of business cloud services?
Well, in the business world, we are used to paying for things – and in many instances these things are purchased in order to gain an edge and a competitive advantage.  There are plenty of examples but here’s a pertinent one: Your business may well have purchased a leased line (private circuit) service connecting your office to the Internet or your private cloud which gives your business faster/more consistent/more reliable connectivity than it would expect to receive from a shared xDSL broadband service.

Now today, as more of our business is happening on the Internet and on mobile thanks to social media, VoIP, Video conferencing, file sharing and cloud services, business users are having to mix it up a bit more with consumers and share fixed and mobile Internet resources. So, if we had the chance to invest in an SLA-backed business-grade Internet access to certain applications – wouldn’t that be attractive?

Let’s face it, that’s more or less what your business is hoping to achieve by purchasing that leased line.  However since this leased line is a private circuit, it’s not considered ‘the Internet’, it’s existence is also unlikely to adversely affect other Internet users, and it’s not paid for by your application or content provider prioritising their content over others – and so it’s not an infringement on net neutrality even if it is an Internet advantage.

Looking at things from the other end of the delivery chain, it is also evident that your business-grade supplier of content, applications and ‘XaaS’ from the cloud is also making investments to improve their chances of delivering their Internet service to you better – by paying for things.

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) have offered paid caching services for many years and now offer a wide range of dynamic content acceleration options in order to improve end-user experience of online services. Similarly most cloud service providers have their pick of a selection of IP transit providers, and can choose the best Internet routes to users using BGP tables – again to improve their service to end-users with better Internet connectivity. Again these actions aren’t in breach of net neutrality because content is ‘prioritised’ using servers not networks, and selecting the best network doesn’t adversely impact anyone else.

The sticking point therefore is when that content or application provider wishes to strike up a deal with the network owner (Internet operator) prioritising their content over everyone else’s.  This is not a major consideration on the backbone of the Internet (as provider choice, bandwidth and private interconnects are abundant), it’s a factor in the ‘last mile’ – the Internet leg that is most bandwidth constrained, congested, the most expensive to deliver – and where the fewest choice of suppliers exist.

If your video content provider wants to pay to install dedicated leased line Internet-access into your home that would be fine, but if they want to pay your ISP to receive preferential treatment on your existing xDSL or cable Internet service, then that’s not fine – as there’s the possibility it might adversely impact and be to the detriment of other broadband users or other Internet content/application suppliers.

This begs the question whether triple-play (Internet + TV + Phone) providers are actually infringing on net neutrality principles by assigning portions of your bandwidth for (or prioritising) OTT services that they themselves are supplying? So it’s permissible if you operate the network and supply the content, but not ok if you only supply the content?  Is my neighbour’s tripe play service affecting my Internet access experience? Well, yes it could well be?!

It’s clear there is a fine line between abiding by and contravening net neutrality principles.  And reportedly some providers such as Apple and Comcast are seeking to test that fine line in pursuit of a buying and selling a performance advantage.

The acid test for net neutrality proponents shouldn’t really be whether network providers allow the purchase of ‘premium’ service levels, but whether in doing so it has an undesirable effect on the service (and/or the rate of service improvement) that is then received by others on the ‘standard’ level of service.  Policing this could prove interesting – particularly if it turns out there’s a huge market for prioritising content – which there will be if it’s not policed very well.

So, on the one hand net neutrality threatens to block businesses being able to buy and sell content and applications with greater speed and reliability.  And on the other hand it can be argued that net neutrality safeguards a level playing field ensuring that cloud service providers and cloud consumers both small and large have an equal stake on the pathways of the Internet regardless of what they are up to.

Determining the importance of maintaining net neutrality for cloud computing may largely depend on your point of view and how you think your business needs are best served.

Key factors influencing your view are likely to be:

a) How constrained your Internet access resources are?
In other words, how much would your experience of your cloud apps benefit if you could purchase a better QoS?  Net neutrality commitments are likely to affect you more where bandwidth is scarce – i.e. remote regions, the developing world or where there’s monopoly telcos failing to invest.  If your business operates in such areas net neutrality would scupper any chance for you to buy an advantage on existing Internet connections. It may also dis-incentivise investment in capacity upgrades from the ISP/network owner.

b) How susceptible to and vulnerable the services you buy or sell are to varying quality of Internet conditions?
What are you are relying on the Internet to do for your business? If your business is buying or selling business-grade voice or video services then you may also miss out on a big opportunity to secure or deliver a better service, perhaps one with an SLA on performance.

The biggest factor however:

c) How much money your business has?
If your business is a start-up cloud supplier or cloud consumer, then you’re likely to have a lot less money to invest in securing an Internet advantage than the big players with whom you may compete with.  Here net neutrality helps you out by not letting your competitors buy an advantage over you. However, this does rather ignore the fact that they are already buying advantages over you in everything from IT hardware to CDN to marketing to human resources. When opportunities exist for the rich and not the poor, you can see why tempers flare.