The more I think of yesterday's comments by the FCC's Tom Wheeler about paid prioritization and fast lanes, the more I see the fingerprints of Apple. Remember the rumored Apple/Comcast discussions a couple months back about a separate pipe to the consumer?
Wheeler seems to be trying to thread a needle through it all, simultaneously promising no slowing or blocking of anything the consumer has bought but leaving open a door for something else. I do think that something else could be *additional* bandwidth paid for on the content that supplements what the consumer buys.
Is that a distinction without a difference? Let's step back from the knee jerk reaction that one man's fast lane is another man's slow lane for a second engage in a thought experiment. Let's go further down the path of what a reader of my Apple fast lane article described as a VNO type of system.
Suppose the FCC allowed last mile operators to sell to the content/cloud/CDN world quantities of supplemental bandwidth to the consumer, in excess of whatever broadband plan the consumer is paying for. The extra capacity could be over any access method - wireless, fiber, dsl, cable - and could vary in size for each. They would then become an Access Virtual Network Operator, or AVNO, a classification the FCC could then regulate in some form.
Thus, someone like Apple could buy its own and use it to deliver some or all traffic for its own closed ecosystem, but someone like Amazon or Akamai could turn around and sell access to theirs to their cloud or content community in bite sized quantities. You could think of it as just an optional extension of the CDN infrastructure we have today. The big guys roll their own, the small guys buy from aggregators only what is needed while the pricing leverage is handled through the larger ecosystem.
There could be any number of such AVNOs, so you might have an 'up to 50Mbps' data plan, but the dsl/cable/fiber modem could also be delivering the consumer a number (let's say 3) of 'up to 10Mbps' in AVNO pipes with specific content. The consumer might not use any services that could access those pipes, or those he does might be explicitly paid for like Netflix or via advertising on the other end.
Put it all together:
- The consumer gets more bandwidth for his buck. He still gets the pipe he paid for, and some extra that kicks in for some traffic.
- The last mile gets another revenue source to pay for an effectively wider bandwidth to the consumer, thus encouraging investment without fear of OTT. But they do have to build out the infrastructure for *more* bandwidth in order to get paid.
- Does the smaller content provider get squeezed out? Well, if he is now able to tap an ecosystem of AVNO bandwidth in the amount he needs without having to negotiate with the last mile, the hill doesn't look as steep as it would if everyone had to do a secret deal with the last mile. In fact, it doesn't look any different than paying for CDN services does today on the other side of the network.
- Do large content operators have better access than small? They have that today everywhere but the last mile anyway, as they can buy better transit, CDN, and data center services in the first place. Size always has advantages and disadvantages. The key has to be that the path for the small agile provider mustn't be artificially choked off. With a VNO-like structure, their market power can be aggregated to help compete.
- Does am AVNO operator have a conflict of interest between his own traffic and that of his customers? No more so than the last mile does today. And if the AVNO owner is also held to the standards of no prioritization/slowing of traffic, then not at all.
- Does the last mile have an incentive to squeeze the consumer's original bandwidth itself in order to maximize its revenue from content? This is surely the biggest sticking point, but perhaps it's one that actually can be regulated. It's pretty straightforward to monitor raw congestion and pricing once the rest is worked out.
- Does this solve the other peering/transit layer issues? Not even close, but you can't have everything.
- Isn't this overly complicated? Very possibly. Why bother with all this if we just want a 1Gbps pipe to the home we can use as we please. But if it doesn't work economically, then no AVNOs get created right?
All the FCC has to do is regulate the conditions surrounding VNO creation, enforce some form of local strong network neutrality on each VNO and the core last miles, and keep them honest about congestion and pricing for the core broadband connection.
Does that work? I don't know, I'm just trying to follow the thread to see where the network neutrality discussion might wind up. I don't think it's helpful to turn this into a good versus evil, take no prisoners kind of thing. We need to find a path to an ecosystem that works for everyone, encouraging innovation in content and applications while ensuring that network investments are rewarded.
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