Net Neutrality, FirstNet, the FCC & You

By Mika Skarp

Net Neutrality is again on the table as the FCC ushers in new leadership with the appointment of  Ajit Pai to replace former chairperson and Net Neutrality advocate Tom Wheeler. Interestingly, and in an uncanny confluence, the FirstNet initiative to build out a public safety infrastructure on commercial networks is now being launched. This will be the first deployment of a Sliced Network, providing guaranteed mobile bandwidth for specific applications, users and devices. And while on the face of it, these two occurrences are not directly connected, the timing of their arrival presents an opportunity to explore a critical common theme – that of how to manage, orchestrate and deliver traffic in mobile IP networks that strikes at the very heart of Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality is commonly understood in the context of today’s outdated ‘best effort’ networks as little more than a round robin scheduling algorithm. However, in a world where networks can be ‘sliced’ to deliver on the gamut of 4G/5G use cases this definition for Net Neutrality no longer makes any sense. It is about access to information, and most importantly, it’s about access to affordable, reliable communication. 

As discussed in a recent Cloudstreet technical paper, Differentiating Mobile Traffic Classes, any given information network may provide for three types of traffic, be they delay sensitive, capacity sensitive or best effort traffic. Under this scheme, and with the large scale roll out of Software Defined Networks (SDN), Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC), today’s networks will allow for innumerable opportunities to define different Quality of Service parameters for different traffic classes. 

As described in our recent case study, FirstNet is the very first Application-Aware Network capable of slicing traffic dynamically. This is done by allowing different end user applications and devices to request Quality of Service class changes when and where required. These changes may be delivered in just milliseconds if Radio Access Network (RAN) conditions and real-time measured network load allows for it. This is all based on the premise that in the new, unified public safety network, a certain amount of capacity shall be reserved to serve many different use cases with equal levels of service reliability. For example, in the very same network you should be able to enjoy the same reliability from an 8 Mbps uplink to a 1 Mbps downlink. And further, this privilege should be extended to every user with the network, and though not necessarily all at the same time, certainly when absolutely required. Within this paradigm, and as illustrated in the FirstNet case study, Public Safety networks can never been congested and as such access to the network must be carefully controlled but at the same time it must be open for the aggregate of mass market consumer and business users in order to keep costs down. To this end, we have helped to ensure that a key feature called “Local Control” be written in to the FirstNet specification. This is the very first and most critical step toward the implementation of true Network Slicing.

Of course commercial networks have exactly the same need, and it’s important from both the carrier business model and mobile network technology perspectives that they share the same ability to meet it head on. While one network may be used for many different use cases, consumers and business users are expecting the network to deliver every service with equal reliability in their own context. And here is where our discussion of Net Neutrality comes full circle and into clear relief. The pervading principle of Net Neutrality is that everyone should have access to these services and on equal terms. It doesn’t matter if it is say, best effort, delivered free under a sponsored service scheme or a 10 Mbps uplink for live video feeds. The point is that everyone in the network should be able to receive services on same terms and use the capacity as they wish, taking into account legal constraints. Despite rumors of a looming Net Netutrality law weed whacker with the arrival of Chairperson Pai, this is the direction that the FCC is heading in. And while it’s precisely what’s written in to current Net Neutrality regulations, the many use cases that are envisioned are not yet clearly carved out.

There’s no doubt that we are heading toward a much more automated world, where access to the Cloud will be mandatory. Imagining that the Cloud is the digital age equivalent of the free press of old, Net Neutrality is in theory set up to serve the same kinds of singular protections as those governing all media, including radio, TV and newspapers.