Dr. Pieter Nooren MSc
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Future 5G networks will provide mobile connectivity that is tailored to specific needs in automotive, health, media, public safety and other vertical sectors. They will bring many connectivity flavours with different combinations of low latency, high bandwidth and extremely high reliability. This differentiation seems to be at odds with the European net neutrality rules that protect the access to the public internet. Uncertainty on the impact of the net neutrality rules can affect the investment plans for 5G and eventually the actual deployment of 5G in Europe.
TNO has made a detailed study of the alignment of the European rules for net neutrality and 5G mobile network technology. The views among policy makers and industry on this topic are mixed and have led to debate. 5G networks will provide higher speeds and more capacity than the current 4G networks. Policy makers, network operators and application providers therefore all prefer a fast and wide roll-out of 5G infrastructure in the coming years. 5G networks are also designed to provide tailored connectivity to so-called verticals like automotive, health, media and public safety. The offering of such tailored connectivity is met with some caution and reservations, as it seems to be at odds with the general rule in net neutrality that Internet Service Providers must treat all traffic equally. Several industry parties fear a strict interpretation of the rules, which would in their view prevent the roll-out of tailored network services for the verticals. Several policy makers expect that the rules provide the room needed for the uptake of a range of differentiated IP connectivity services. They therefore do not share this concern. The difference in view introduces an uncertainty: what types of tailored connectivity will be allowed in 5G networks? This can affect the technical and investment roadmaps of the operators and the companies in sector verticals.
TNO has initiated this study provide to functional and factual underpinning for the policy discussion on this topic. The sponsors for the study reflect the multi-stakeholder environment of the 5G and net neutrality discussion: the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, the Authority for Consumers and Markets, KPN, T-Mobile, Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and the industry association FME.
The starting point for the study are three use cases that introduce challenging requirements for the connectivity to be delivered by 5G. The use cases are taken from Virtual Reality in media and entertainment, Critical Communications in public safety and Automated Driving. Together, the three uses cases present different combinations of challenging requirements for 5G networks: short delays (latencies), high bandwidth and high reliability of the connectivity. We have developed a model for a 5G architecture that supports the tailored connectivity that the use cases demand. The architecture model builds on key 5G technology ingredients like slicing, edge computing and quality of service differentiation.
We have assessed the alignment of 5G with net neutrality by carefully analysing the mapping of the net neutrality rules to different options for providing tailored connectivity to services and applications in the 5G architecture model. Our analysis puts forward two overall messages for policy makers and industry. It also provides a detailed analysis of nine topics that will appear in the net neutrality assessments that national regulatory authorities, network operators and application providers will make.
The Regulation and Guidelines do not address specific 5G technologies. This technological neutrality turns out to be crucial in our analysis. What matters for the compliance with net neutrality rules is how the 5G technologies are used to support services and applications, rather than the technologies themselves. Therefore, the European net neutrality rules do not introduce a ban on any 5G technology ingredient, also not on the technologies that are being developed with the aim to differentiate between traffic flows and applications. It also means that it is not possible to come to an overall assessment with a single outcome on the alignment of 5G technology with net neutrality rules.
The central question in the assessment of the compliance with net neutrality rules is whether the services and applications supported by the 5G technology components adhere to the net neutrality rules for Internet Access Services and Specialised Services, whichever are applicable. It is these conditions and rules that determine the room for mobile operators and content and application providers (including those from vertical sectors) in their use of 5G technology. Network slicing provides a relevant illustration of this point. Slicing is a key 5G technology that mobile operators may want to use in support of many different services and applications. Our analysis shows that the use of slicing will vary. The consequence is that the use of slicing technology in a mobile operator network can bring in the rules for Internet Access Service, for Specialised Services or both, depending on the services and applications that are supported. It is not possible to come to an overall assessment with a single outcome on the alignment of slicing with net neutrality rules. This is because the topics that are encountered in the assessment and the outcome depend not only on the 5G technology, but also on the specific combination of services, applications and network architecture. This is true for network slicing, but also for other key 5G technologies such as QoS differentiation.