Joe Biden's net neutrality threat to 5G

A big attraction of 5G, supposedly, is something called network slicing. Essentially, it would let an operator turn its 5G network into a multi-lane highway, minus the hassle of building lots of separate physical lanes. Ideally, one of these lanes could be conjured up as and when needed, providing superior bandwidth, lower latency or other guarantees denied those cruising along the same road.

Network slicing, however, is not a thing you will be able to witness in Joe Biden's America. Not, that is, if he succeeds in resurrecting the maggoty corpse of net neutrality and its disciples enforce rules to the letter. That's because net neutrality – as defined by the Office of the Federal Register – is designed to "prohibit blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization." Network slicing, by contrast, is all about paying an operator for a better service than the masses typically enjoy.


US President Joe Biden is reviving an issue that should permanently be laid to rest.

Now, it's conceivable that operators can somehow keep these lanes of privilege separate from the public Internet, ensuring they are not subject to the rules. But it is by no means a given, and the whole slicing concept is about using the same physical infrastructure for all services. The most obvious workaround would be to construct numerous private networks for specific customers.

In other words, the enforcement of net neutrality could drive a proverbial Humvee through the painstakingly built walls of the telecom industry's business case for network slicing. It risks undermining some of the 5G investment activity and defacing the industry's 5G technology roadmap.

Tribalism in telecom

Lawmakers could always fudge the issue. The European Commission previously did that, when 5G was still foetal, by outlining exemptions for what it called "specialized services." These, regulators explained, would be "services which are optimized for specific content, applications or services, or a combination thereof, where the optimization is necessary in order to meet requirements of the content, applications or services for a specific level of quality."

But this was about as clear as Trappist ale to Norwegian incumbent Telenor, which diplomatically described the language as "vague" before pointing out that "5G services will in most use cases be a combination of (best effort) Internet and some quality assurance."

The very need to fudge or overlook net neutrality proves just how impractical it has become across the Atlantic. It is the telecom sector's contribution to an America now riven by tribalism and identity politics, a call to arms for the placard-wielding guardians of the open Internet, a struggle against the evil empire of the big telcos and their greedy, restrictive behavior.

In reality, it is a huge distraction from more important issues that successive US governments, whether Democrat or Republican, have failed to address. It is needed, say advocates, because a lack of broadband choice means consumers have nowhere to go if their providers block or throttle services. A better long-term remedy, surely, would be to find ways of boosting broadband competition, finding a middle ground between Europe's crowded telecom markets and America's oligopoly.

Nor did net neutrality, when previously enforced under Biden's former boss Barack Obama, do anything to restrain the big Internet companies and give smaller players a chance. Big tech, in fact, grew even more powerful between January 2009 and January 2017, when Obama sat in the White House.

In February 2015 – when Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, passed net neutrality legislation – Alphabet, Google's parent company, traded at $556.87 on the stock exchange. By December 2017, when Ajit Pai repealed the law as Wheeler's successor, its value had soared to $1,046.40. Facebook's share price rose from $74.47 to $179 over the same period.

Blocking and throttling

There was a time when operators had a vested interest in blocking or throttling Internet services. In the early days of broadband, Internet telephony providers were a clear threat to the telco voice business, for instance. But operators today generate nearly all their revenues from selling megabytes rather than applications. Blocking third parties would make as much commercial sense as barring Novak Djokovic from playing at Wimbledon.

AT&T is even spinning off WarnerMedia, the huge content business it bought for $85 billion in 2018, while Yahoo has sold Yahoo and AOL, its own content assets. The idea that a US telco, more dumb pipe now than ever before, would intentionally block or throttle any Internet service that might appeal to any consumer is patently absurd.

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Far likelier is that a cabal of Internet giants will do all the blocking and throttling. Facebook and Twitter, notably, have already banned former US President Donald Trump from their sites, arguing that his posts were an incitement to violence. Whatever one's view of this matter, their actions were taken without recourse to any legal authority and demonstrate how much power they hold. Unaccountable to the electorate, the billionaire owners of social media companies have become the ultimate censors of public discourse.

An unconstrained president would kill net neutrality once and for all, recognizing it as a boondoggle for lawyers. Unfortunately, the installment of Biden in the White House has not ended the tribalism that infests US politics, obliging him to dredge up the issue. He did so on July 9 in his latest executive order about "promoting competition in the American economy." The goal, said that statement, is to adopt "through appropriate rulemaking 'Net Neutrality' rules similar to those previously adopted under title II of the Communications act of 1934 … as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996."

Net neutrality will do nothing to shift the balance of power between telcos and Internet companies, or to weaken big tech. It will have only two possible effects. The first is to restore principles that in theory could hinder the rollout of new 5G services. The second is to amuse Chinese authorities, who know they can demolish buildings and erect dams without fearing any policy reversals in future. When America's political winds blow Republican once again, net neutrality will return to its tomb – for a few years, at least.