America may end up with paid-for 5G fast lanes under net neutrality anyway

Damn you, network virtualization

A law professor is warning a proposed reintroduction of net neutrality in the US will allow cellular networks to create “fast lanes” for some applications, and that this undermines the entire net neutrality principle.

The FCC is set to vote on restoring net neutrality next week, after the Trump administration overturned Obama-era rules in 2017 that, simply put, tried to ensure internet providers generally treat all traffic equally as common carriers.

Pro-net-neutrality types want to avoid a future in which netizens have to pay extra to, for instance, read news without connections being throttled, or a future in which one social media giant pays to have an unfair amount of bandwidth allocated to it, strangling rivals. Those against the red-tape claim market forces will smooth out any injustices or unreasonable behavior – if an ISP or cell network throttles certain connections, people will vote with their feet and wallets, if possible.

Now Professor Barbara van Schewick, of the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) at Stanford Law School, has argued the FCC’s proposed reinstatement of network neutrality will make it possible for US mobile carriers to pick applications and put them into a fast lane, for which they could charge more.

“T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are all testing ways to create these 5G fast lanes for apps such as video conferencing, games, and video where the ISP chooses and controls what gets boosted,” she explained this month.

Their equipment vendors plainly lay out how ISPs can chop up internet service into all manner of fast lanes

“The ISPs write about this in their blogs and press releases. They talk about these efforts and dreams openly at conferences, and their equipment vendors plainly lay out how ISPs can chop up internet service into all manner of fast lanes.”

“These kinds of ISP-controlled fast lanes violate core net neutrality principles and would limit user choice, distort competition, hamper startups, and help cement platform dominance,” Professor van Schewick claims.

We asked the FCC for comment on Professor van Schewick’s claims, and will update if we get an answer.

But what is this capability that will allow mobile carriers to operate these 5G “fast lanes”? It is none other than network slicing, a much-heralded feature of 5G networks that is starting to become possible with the rollout of full 5G Standalone networks that are built from the ground up for 5G, rather than reusing existing infrastructure designed for 4G.

Let's get technical

Network slicing is like virtualization for networks; it allows for multiple logical networks, each with characteristics tailored for different applications and use-cases, to operate over the same physical infrastructure.

According to Ericsson, which makes networking kit, network slicing is designed to allow a network operator to deliver various levels of speed, latency, and reliability depending on the subscriber. One user could be on a high-speed tier, another on a super reliable but slower one, and so on, depending on their needs and ability to pay, and all on the same infrastructure. Adept IT network admins or anyone who has used software-defined networking will know what we're talking about here.

As T-Mobile US put it, a slice “potentially could be used for public safety first-responder traffic, where an SLA for improved latency enhances the communication capabilities between an ambulance and a hospital.”

In other words, network slicing was designed so that virtual networks can be operated that are tailored to the specific requirements of certain applications. This was one of the selling points of 5G.

Professor van Schewick said a no-throttling rule the FCC included in its proposed reintroduction of net neutrality in October explicitly prohibited ISPs from slowing down apps and classes of apps, but the watchdog was silent on whether the rule also applies to speeding up.

She said public interest groups, startups, and members of Congress asked the FCC to clarify that the no-throttling rule would also prohibit broadband providers from speeding up apps and classes of apps, and the draft order does not do this.

Instead, it acknowledges that some speeding up of apps could violate the no-throttling rule, and that the FCC will review any “fast lanes” on a case-by-case basis.

In the meantime, Professor van Schewick believes apps that are not in the fast lane will suffer.

Or maybe not

Gartner VP analyst Bill Ray told us he does not believe carriers are set to use network slicing in the way the professor is concerned about.

“I guess the professor is suggesting that an MVNO, perhaps owned by one of the network operators, could buy a slice, nationally, and then re-sell it to end users for a specific application. This is a long way from what the technology was designed to do, but I guess it is technically possible,” Ray, a former Register vulture, said.

The professor also suggested that net neutrality proponents are not asking the FCC to ban network slicing, saying that there are valid uses for the technology, such as slices for telemetry data and oversight of autonomous cars, or providing a slice for a stadium’s video system at a crowded game.

“But the 5G fast lanes ISPs are imagining for regular internet access - where ISPs decide which apps or kind of apps get a fast lane - would cause real harm and violate the core tenets of net neutrality,” she added.

According to Vodafone, users will actually see better performance, not worse, thanks to upgraded networks with the ability to support network slicing.

“Network slicing can only be done on a new generation of networks called 5G Standalone (5G SA). 5G SA operates on upgraded equipment and software. Compared to today’s 4G and 5G (also known as 5G Non-standalone), it is much more efficient,” the telco stated in an explainer.

So who is right? Well, US cellphone users are set to find out, once the new net neutrality rules come into effect. ®

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