Telcos threaten to pull 5G investments if EU net neutrality rules are not watered down

A public EU consultation on the future deployment of 5G mobile technology closed yesterday. The same day a coalition of Europe’s largest telecommunications companies and industrial conglomerates — from Vodafone to Siemens – sent the European Commission a “5G Manifesto”. The document is standard policy lobbying fare, describing the untold wonders that 5G’s low-latency hyper-connectivity will deliver: such as self-driving cars, remote healthcare, smart grids and immersive media; while asking for leadership, massive public funding and the softening of regulations.

The global roadmap and standards for 5G have been developed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an intergovernmental body, in collaboration with the mobile industry. The main headline of the ITU’s IMT–2020 vision is the peak data rate of speed up to 20 Gbps – 100 Mps for the user — with data taking centre stage from calls, but behind those figures there are many complex technical changes to how data is transmitted and networks configured.

Industry’s policy offensive is focused on the Net Neutrality rules that have been put forward for public consultation by BEREC, the European body of telecoms regulators that includes Ofcom.

The main argument from industry is the BEREC’s rules would hamper the development of “network slicing,” a key feature of 5G, which means creating virtual separate networks using the same physical infrastructure. These sliced networks are aimed at “industry verticals”: transport, energy, health, etc. The paper does not explain why the allowances for “specialised services”in BEREC’s proposed rules would not make this possible. The lobbyists’ manifesto simply threatens that investments will be delayed unless regulators find a way to “reconcile the need for Open Internet with pragmatic rules that foster innovation.”

The mythical golden days of the Open Internet as a geek run paradise of free expression may have passed — but we still need to keep in check these kinds of statements. For starters, it is hard to see what can be more pragmatic and innovative than the deceptively simple technical standards that built the Internet.

The protection of particular traffic and the development of specialised software based networks in itself may not be an issue. Everyone would want their self-driving car — or school bus, or street cleaning robot — to be as safe as possible. The relationship between industrial machine-to-machine traffic and human oriented traffic may not be the critical angle either. After all, media and entertainment appear in roadmaps as just another industry that can get its own slice of the cake. Net neutrality rules would appear to leave enough flexibility for such developments.

The main problem with the vision for global mobile hyper connectivity proposed by industry and the ITU is that it may hamper innovation by locking in the future profits of incumbent telcos and locking out citizens and SMEs from an internet-of-everything controlled by Siemens, Thales and other mega-conglomerates. A future mobile communications system purely driven by the needs of industry will also derail the social innovation required to get the European continent out of the current crisis. Freedom of expression may not thrive in the same way in such a controlled environment. For example, paragraph 18 of the BEREC text clearly states that machine to machine communications like smart meters are “outside the scope of the Regulation, unless they are used to circumvent this Regulation.”

What the manifesto really says is that telcos are fed up with seeing connectivity becoming a commodity and will only invest if they can create a differentiated market and charge a premium for exclusivity. This is a natural demand, and fair play to them. They should explain how this will not lead to a repeat of the extortionate prices for mobile communications we are only now barely starting to leave behind. Someone will have to pick up the tab. What is more depressing is seeing the European Commission once again uncritically supporting big businesses’ demands, as if that was the only kind of industrial policy possible.

The future of mobile connectivity is too important to leave it to a small group of profit seeking organisations and bureaucrats. Society needs to be part of the discussions on strategic telecommunications such as 5G, in the same way we accept that decisions on high speed rail or nuclear power need a wider input. These developments will affect our lives and will cost taxpayers billions of dollars, euros and pounds.

It is unclear whether the mobile telephony model based on ITU top down standards, absolute government control and centralised infrastructure built by a handful of large companies can deliver the kind of ubiquitous connectivity required in the future. The Open Internet that everyone claims to protect has been a success so far precisely because it has taken a very different route based on open standards, decentralisation and multi-stakeholder governance. Large investments will certainly be required, but the role of industry and ideas of profit rewarded risk and investment may need to be questioned for projects that are too critical to fail.