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6 December 2022

UK and India ready to relax neutrality rules to enable 5G slicing

Regulators around the world have come under pressure from telcos and over-the-top service providers to relax network neutrality rules to allow the use of network slicing for allocation of differentiated services over 5G networks.

This issue has been simmering for around six years, ever since the potential of dynamic slicing under 5G became clear, but has come to the boil as operators embark on serious trials or even early commercial deployments.

This adds further complexity to the network neutrality issue, which itself has ebbed and flowed for over two decades, as many nations continually adjust their stances under lobbying from one side or the other. In the USA, it seems that net neutrality rules tend to follow presidential election cycles, tightening when a Democrat is in the White House and being relaxed under the Republicans.

President Biden, accordingly, has tried to reinstate stronger neutrality rules at the federal level, after they had been more or less torn up by President Trump in 2017. The situation is complicated in the USA by states imposing their own rules, especially in the absence of clear federal oversight, as is the case at present, now that Biden’s attempts to reimpose stronger rules have stalled for various reasons.

This has happened chiefly because Gigi Sohn, his chosen nominee for the fifth seat on the FCC, who was chosen eight months into his presidency, has failed to obtain Senate approval to take up the place, leaving the regulator deadlocked between two Republicans and Democrats for voting.

As a result, net neutrality is still rather in limbo in the USA, amid pressure from mobile operators, at least for clarity. Until that happens the operators will hold back on commercial launch of any service that requires differentiated QoS via network slicing in case it falls foul of future neutrality laws.

AT&T is in the thick of this debate, having been rumored, earlier this year, to be developing a new form of mobile cloud gaming service that would allow potential subscribers to try new games out for free over the 5G network, at the same QoS they would enjoy as full paying customers. In the event, AT&T clarified it would only work through third parties as provider of the connectivity, implying that it hoped to derive revenues from them in return for high QoS guaranteed through network slicing, to partition gaming sessions from other traffic.

With network slicing, 5G promises to enable gaming experiences on smartphones more comparable to those that usually require dedicated consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox, connected via fixed broadband connections, But any commercial offering, even from an OTT provider, would only work with a service prioritizing the associated traffic, which would certainly run counter to the net neutrality rules currently in force in a number of states, such as California.

Gaming is not the only application running into the impasse of net neutrality. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom has also launched a foray into this market with its Magenta Gaming, leveraging edge computing and its 5G network. It has been harnessing slicing for streaming of German broadcaster RTL Deutschland’s live content over its 5G Standalone (SA) network.

The two conducted tests in September showing that reliable TV transmission could be accomplished even to devices in busy urban cells, by hiving off a network slice enabling the high bit-rates required. Latency was not specified, as it is not critical for most games or for live TV, providing the delay imposed is not more than around eight seconds end-to-end, to be comparable with traditional TV broadcast.

The importance of network slicing for broadcasters, as they increasingly seek audiences on mobile devices, was underlined at the time of those trials by Stephan Schmitter, managing director of RTL News and chief journalistic content officer for RTL Deutschland.

“Our goal is to provide our viewers and users with the best and fastest information from anywhere and at any time,” said Schmitter. “5G network slicing is an important tool for this and therefore strengthens our independent journalism. This will allow our journalists to put this technology to work in real broadcasting operations in the future. 5G Standalone and network slicing enable reliable live broadcasts.”

The unspoken caveat was again that would rely on network neutrality rules being clarified and where necessary relaxed. DT and other telcos in the EU have been lobbying for clarity. The EU rules are certainly rather opaque at present, representing a classic European fudge which has been criticized by some operators. Norway’s Telenor decried them as vague and unfit for 5G, which is not a one-size-fits-all pipe, as early fixed broadband connections were, at the time when most net neutrality rules were framed.

In essence, the EU prohibited any negative discrimination against individual websites or apps, but does allow prioritization of certain specified services, such as remote surgery, driverless cars and online anti-terrorism measures. The rule is that these services can only be offered if they avoid curtailing bandwidth for other users.

Telenor’s points are that, firstly 5G slicing will allow fixed bandwidth to be preserved for best effort applications such as general messaging or web browsing; but secondly, the net neutrality rules do not account for other parameters, such as latency, availability and security.

In the UK, operators were saddled with even greater ambiguity over net neutrality, prompting Vodafone to lead a campaign in 2022 for a serious update from regulator Ofcom. Vodafone upped the lobbying ante after completing a trial of on-demand slicing in a 5G SA network with Ericsson in the UK. This achieved download speed of 260Mbps, latency of 12.4 milliseconds, and 30 minutes between ordering the slice and final provisioning.

Vodafone UK’s chief network officer Andrea Dona argued that with such diverse potential use cases, including gaming, entertainment, healthcare, remote vehicle operation, smart surveillance, and connectivity for electricity grid substations, imposing a blanket net neutrality regime no longer made any sense, if it ever did.

Vodafone then proposed a new regime in which, as a starting point, broad use cases, such as high-speed mobile, IoT and fixed wireless access (FWA), become separated since they operate in distinct environments. These were as different as apples, oranges and bananas, Donna quipped.

It seems that Ofcom was listening, because in November the regulator announced it would like to ensure that net neutrality rules do not prevent MNOs from launching services such as network slicing. Ofcom proposed guidance to clarify the conditions under which such ‘specialized services’ can be offered. This sounds a bit like the EU’s regulation, but Ofcom said that it was considering network slicing as a “case study for the application of the net neutrality principles to ‘specialized services’.”

Unlike the USA, where it would be foolish ever to predict which way regulations will turn, it looks fairly clear that slicing will become exempt to a large degree from net neutrality rules. Apart from the service diversity angle, one argument in favor of relaxation is that access to network slices could be controlled by users rather than operators. Already, the latest Android 13 released in August 2022 supports selection of broad slices for either latency or bit-rate by users’ handsets, as well as by operators.

It can also be argued that network slicing could, in future, enhance fair access by creating best-effort slices, insulated against intrusion from demanding services such as UHD video. The question then would be how big these slices would be, but the spirit of net neutrality should ensure that they are never shrunk to make way for premium services, as was feared might happen earlier if operators were given freedom to prioritize at will.

In India, this debate was taking place even before 5G services was launched, ahead of the 5G spectrum auction that finished in early August 2022. As elsewhere, regulators came under lobbying fire from operators, especially the big three – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

Until quite recently, in April 2022, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) resisted such pressure, pledging its support for an open Internet in the country. Then in October, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) came out with a joint position arguing that network slicing would not violate the principles of net neutrality, while agreeing that suitable updates to the licensing rules would be needed to permit slicing.

The decision seemed to pivot on the point that the DoT had already permitted operators to provide captive private 4G networks as services to enterprise businesses by taking slices out of their public network. On that basis, regular slicing-as-a-service was really no more than an extension of what was already allowed.

Network slicing is discussed with forecasts of traffic and revenues by geography and industry sector in the latest report from RAN Research, the analytics arm of Rethink Technology Research. The report will be published this week – for more information, please contact John Constant on [email protected].