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Roadmap for Additional Discussion on Net Neutrality in Europe

As consideration of the Net Neutrality legislation in Europe moves to the next phase, it is important that policymakers reflect on two real-world issues that were not fully resolved in the debate in the European Parliament.  These include whether networks under the currently proposed framework can handle the projected growth in fixed and mobile network traffic; and whether the proposal will hinder or help innovation, particularly as it relates to specialized services.  These are critical issues given the technology and traffic trends that exist today.

The simple truth is that the ICT industry is fast-paced and ever changing, with new technologies and innovations brought to market every day.  Just think:  in less than a decade, smartphones, tablets and apps have gone from nowhere to being nearly ubiquitous.  Where will we be five years from now, when a new generation of technology unfolds?

One thing that we’re confident about of is that network traffic is going to increase dramatically over  time, placing strains on fixed and mobile networks alike. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, IP traffic in Western Europe will increase from 7.7 exabytes per month in 2012 to 16.8 exabytes per month by 2017, at a compound annual growth rate of 17 percent  (16.8 exabytes is the equivalent of 4 billion DVDs’ worth of traffic.).  Mobile traffic alone will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 50% every year for the next five years – to an astounding 1.9 million terabytes a month.

Given this dramatic growth, it’s imperative that policymakers put rules in place that encourage innovation and job creation, as well as reasonable resource management functionality to prevent traffic jams that will degrade the quality that consumers have come to expect.  However, we are concerned that the Net Neutrality proposal voted today raises significant technical and implementation issues, and risks hampering the very innovation that we would all like to see encouraged.

To be sure, Cisco is supportive of the European Commission’s efforts to provide legislative safeguards for an open, global Internet, as part of its broader “Connected Continent” package.  No doubt content and services should reach users without being blocked, throttled or degraded by internet service providers (ISPs) managing internet traffic on their networks. Cisco supports this wholeheartedly, in Europe and elsewhere.

Moreover, we share the Commission’s view that it is better to anchor these safeguards in European-wide legislation, avoiding a patchwork quilt of different, and potentially contradictory, national laws.

But at the same time, we believe the current proposal needs additional discussion in two key areas:First, the proposal does not do enough to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable forms of network traffic management.  With the growth of network traffic described above, and the coming avalanche of video, real-time communications and other next-generation applications that consumers are demanding, it should be clear that traffic management is an essential set of tools that are vital for a fully functioning internet. The ‘all bits are created equal’ approach oversimplifies the realities of modern networks.  Therefore, policymakers should do more to draw a bright line between the unreasonable blocking that no one wants, and the necessary traffic management techniques that ensure the fast, reliable and scalable networks that we all rely on, and need as consumers.

Second, there is also a need to clarify which tailored services can be offered alongside the open Internet, what the Commission’s proposal categorizes as ‘specialized services’.  A new wave of technological innovation is coming, with the advent of the Internet of Everything (IoE) that connects people, process, data and things.  Cisco estimates that the IoE holds some $19 trillion of value over the next ten years.  This includes consumer products as small as Fitbits and Nest Thermostats to industrial applications as large as connected grids, improved transportation management, and technologies that prevent oil and gas pollution from pipelines.   The common thread is that there will be increased need for network resource management tools to handle the anticipated 50 billion connected devices, with all the data they produce.But here is the challenge:  the definition of ‘specialized’ services voted in the European Parliament today attempts to define this category in a very narrow and technology prescriptive way. This limited definition introduces additional complexity and cost burden for no clear benefit, and will soon be obsolete as innovation drives technology forward.

In contrast, we believe that any definition for specialized services should open up, rather than close off, potential paths to future digital innovation.  We need to ask ourselves a simple question:  will the current proposal have the unintended consequence of rolling back services that internet users have come to expect and rely on? If a consumer or a business chooses a video conference or TelePresence service with a guarantee of quality because they need to connect with the highest quality resolution, will this still be allowed? Is the definition sufficiently flexible and future proof to make sure there is room for future innovation –from IPTV to e-health, from Software Defined Networking (SDN) to the Internet of Everything?

So as this legislation moves closer to final adoption, we urge policymakers to take another look at these issues, and take into account the very real trends in network traffic and technological innovation.

We all want an open Internet, and the issues at stake are of crucial importance for the future digital economy of Europe. Let’s address the prevention of potential bad behavior, while making sure the remedy we put in place does not produce unforeseen and unintended effects on consumers and innovation down the road.

Pastora Valero is Director Governments Affairs EMEAR based in Brussels

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