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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Can net neutrality ever be a bad thing?

We talk to Tekelec's CTO about the net neutrality debate

Mark Bridge writes:

If I’m paying for internet access - whether the arrangement is with a broadband service provider for my home or a mobile network operator on my smartphone - I want to be able to use that access however I want. That’s pretty much what net neutrality is all about.

But the debate isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. To learn more, I spoke to Doug Suriano, Chief Technology Officer at mobile broadband solutions company Tekelec.

I started by asking Doug, who’s been at Tekelec for the past eight years, how the company fits into the mobile industry.

Doug Suriano“We have been around as a company for about 40 years”, he said. “We’ve grown up in the telecom space, starting off with test tools, then we became the SS7 signalling guys with the majority of the market share globally and now we’re moving into the mobile broadband space in a big way.”

“We have products that support the mobile broadband data market. We have a policy infrastructure to implement policies within mobile networks. We have a diameter signalling infrastructure which is really the nervous system of the new LTE networks and then finally we have subscriber data management solutions to help with all the subscriber data needs in the mobile environment. So those three make up what we call the New Diameter Network for these next-generation mobile operators. And that’s really our focus right now as a company.”

I moved the conversation on to net neutrality. Surely, I said to Doug, it’s a good thing for everybody. Why wouldn’t a network operator want to commit to this?

“Well, I think the biggest issue with net neutrality is how is it going to be restrictive in the mobile operator’s quest to provide revenue generating services?  These guys are commercial entities, they’re in to make a profit, but they’re also providing a service to their subscribers. That’s their reason for existence. And so I think the best way to look at it is how do you get the over-the-top guys who want to deliver these services and ride these mobile networks, how do you get the consumer and how do you get the operator himself to all align to provide profitable, valuable, innovative services to the subscriber?  And so the alignment of all three of those, I think, is the key to getting the net neutrality question resolved. If you favour one over the other you’re not going to actually have a mobile operator that can actually provide services because they won’t be able to generate the revenue necessary to support the network to provide the service. So the rules that we put in place have to encourage innovation, they have to be a way to create profitability for the operator and they have to be able to ultimately allow the consumer to make choices in how they consume services.”

But what about the customer who’s paying for a fixed allowance of mobile data?  Why, I asked Doug, should network operators be in a position to tell their customers what they can and can’t use this internet access for?

“I don’t think really they want to do that”, he explained. “I don't think that’s the ultimate goal. I think the ultimate goal is how do you most efficiently and effectively provide the services, in other words, allow your customers to consume that data any way they want.”

“But it’s not just about the way that the consumer actually pays and consumes that data. New business models are starting to emerge where third parties pay for that data consumption. For example; you might have a website which runs a promotion where while a subscriber is surfing on a provider’s website, that website provider actually pays for the data usage for that session and maybe other sessions associated with it. So you might have a case where a service actually is going to be free and doesn’t count against the subscriber’s minutes or gigabyte usage. If the net neutrality rules aren’t carefully implemented you’ll stifle that innovation and prevent subscribers to be able to take advantage of those kinds of capabilities. Another example is a sports-oriented website. Maybe when you’re watching a streaming video of the World Cup, if you are willing to accept advertisements while you’re watching that streaming video, maybe the advertiser will help pay for that streaming session.”

“Another example is a car manufacturer. When you buy a new car with all the M2M (machine-to-machine) capabilities going on, that car will most likely have an embedded wireless device in it. There’s other telematic applications that could be in play there, maybe something tied with GPS and some location-based services. And so the car manufacturer would say, ‘You know what, I will subsidise this device on your subscriber account for your mobile operator if you buy my car. And so you won’t have to pay for any of the data usage that device produces, I’ll pay for that. And we’ll just add that device to your subscriber account with your desired mobile operator’.

“There’s a lot of innovation going on in this space and what we’re hoping to do is allow that innovation to continue freely where the consumer benefits in ways they haven’t thought of in the past.”

It was starting to sound as though commercial concerns around net neutrality weren’t really about blocking things but were about the language behind net neutrality limiting innovation. Was this the case, I asked?

“Absolutely”, replied Doug, “and it's innovation that actually will help all three parties: the service provider, maybe the the advertiser and the company that’s actually providing the streaming video; the operator themselves; and, of course, the end consumer. So I believe that whatever rules are put in place, all three of those constituents need to actually benefit. If you restrict any one of them, I think you’re going to be lopsided, and it’s going to be hard to provide a sustainable economic model.”

What about now, I asked?  What should mobile network operators be doing at the moment to ensure they’re ready for whatever the net neutrality debate presents them with?

“The mobile operators really need to focus on getting the flexible infrastructure in place. And so, as the operators are looking to emerge and evolve their networks into the mobile broadband space, it’ll behove them to implement a policy infrastructure that is flexible enough to be able to absorb the impact and implement any net neutrality rules that would be put in place.”

Ultimately, Doug pointed out, decisions about net neutrality will be made by standards bodies and regulatory bodies.

“Regardless of what we think about net neutrality and what our position is, the carriers are going to have to go ahead and comply.”

You can listen to the programme on our website audio player, via iTunes, by using our RSS feed or by downloading the mp3 and OGG audio files directly. Alternatively, install the Android, iOS or webOS Stitcher Radio app and stream the podcast straight to your mobile phone.
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