The Myth of Neutral Infrastructure

This week is the ECTA Regulatory Conference in Brussels. That is the European Competitive Telecommunications Association. Abbreviations like that can give a dull impression for sure, but this is the core of online regulation and internet governance. The cables are often seen to be neutral and policy decisions about infrastructure are supposedly non-controversial, a well-functioning network benefits all. It is at the core of EU telecom policy, just look at the Commission’s Connect ed Continent policy proposal where the idea of network neutrality rests on the assumption that access services (subscription) are separate from specialized services (content services for example). There are three problems with this view. First of all infrastructure is never neutral, look at the controversy around traffic infrastructure projects for example: hardly any such project is started without protest and long debates. Digital infrastructure is no different, there are lots of opposing interests and competition issues between the telcos. And there is a hierarchy of cable owners and access buyers who often end up settling conflict over infrastructure access in court. Second, infrastructure can not be seen as separate from content or users or even society for that matter. Seemingly non-controversial issues of standards, technology, network roll-out etc can have fundamental consequences for those using the network. Digital infrastructure is used by most Europeans on a daily basis, and even those who don’t use it are affected by how it changes society. And thirdly, the separation of access and specialized services is purely academic. Today many larger companies buy dedicated infrastructure for their internal communication purposes, stock traders have set up direct physical network access to stock market computer systems, and increasingly internet services build their own infrastructure. Cloud services like Google and Apple run huge data centers and are beginning to set up their won networks to ensure access. Google’s Project Loon is another, more spectacular, example of this development – using wifi-balloons to provide online access to remote areas. Infrastructure is everything but neutral.

None of these points, however, seem to influence the regulator. One of the keynote speakers at the ECTA conference is BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) chairman elect Göran Marby. In his talk, he made a big point of how the landscape is changing and the old ways will not work. But the old ways he referred to was not neutral networks, but the old vertical delivery services of broadcast networks. Those would rather be the old-old ways, Netopia thought that conversation was over a long time ago. This begs the question, does Marby not know about how digital networks have evolved? Or does he only pretend not to know? I’d rather not think about which is worse.

ECTA conference:

Connected Continent:

Project Loon: