5G Might Make Net Neutrality More Complicated for Open Internet Proponents

European regulators are preparing for a net neutrality challenge over 'network slicing'

5G will present new challenges for net neutrality laws.
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The coming 5G revolution could bring new challenges for proponents of open internet ideals.

Tech prognosticators expect the next generation of wireless service to trigger a massive expansion of the role networked connections play in every facet of society, from car traffic to power grids. But that pervasiveness is already creating new dilemmas for the principles of net neutrality, the idea that service providers should treat all data that runs through their networks with equal priority.

As one analyst put it, will it still make sense to treat a heart monitor transmission to a hospital with the same urgency as a cat video? Meaning, that in a world where wireless is so intertwined with everyday functions, ranging from healthcare to physical infrastructure, new questions will arise about whether or not internet traffic should be prioritized.

In other words, one of the key features of 5G service will be the opportunity for “network slicing,” the segmentation of a single physical network into multiple virtual ones in accordance with particular use cases. Communication between autonomous cars, for instance, requires minimal latency (the lag time it takes for a signal to travel), but not necessarily high throughput (the amount of data a network can process per second) while a use-case like augmented reality will take more bandwidth. With slicing, these needs could be accommodated by delegating each to its own network-within-a-network.

That capability can enable more efficient apportioning of network resources, but it can also lead providers to charge different rates for different network tiers with varying quality of service, something net neutrality advocates have long opposed.

That issue will soon come to a head in the European Union, which has boasted some of the strongest net neutrality laws in the world since 2016. Regulators there are expected to submit a new evaluation of that regimen next month, where they will likely address how the rules will apply to 5G, part of a months-long process to revisit the laws that will end in early 2020.

Telecoms have been pushing hard for 5G to be considered “specialized services” under European law and thus exempt from normal net neutrality laws. But with carriers promoting 5G service as a replacement for in-home terrestrial internet, wireless could eventually come to constitute all internet service. An exemption would therefore completely undermine the entirety of the EU’s net neutrality legal protections.

Telecoms previously threatened that a refusal to loosen net neutrality laws in this way would reduce incentives to build out the expensive infrastructure needed for 5G in a 2016 document called the “5G Manifesto,” which was put forth by an industry coalition that included Deutsche Telekom, Nokia and Vodafone.

“The EU must reconcile the need for open internet with pragmatic rules that foster innovation,” the group wrote at the time. “The telecom industry warns that current net neutrality guidelines, as put forward by BEREC [Body of European Regulators], create significant uncertainties around 5G return on investment. Investments are therefore likely to be delayed unless regulators take a positive stance on innovation and stick to it.”

But open internet groups like Vienna-based Epicenter Works claim the current net neutrality laws are flexible enough to accommodate 5G and that the changes for which the telecom industry is pushing would open the door to a broader segmentation of the internet by price.

“[Exemption] could in the worst-case replace the open internet: fast lanes for the rich, lame connections for the rest,” a translated version of the organization’s statement reads. “Possible application scenarios range from favoring premium customers in mobile communications at the expense of all other network subscribers, who would have to settle for a worse ‘slice,’ to a complete segmentation of the internet in which every application in the network would be individually controllable.”

The EU’s review, set to open for public comment late this year and go into effect in March 2020, will be the first big test for net neutrality in the coming 5G era.

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