Satellite Meets Net Neutrality
European Union (EU) Commissioner Neelie Kroes has noted the satellite industry’s contribution to the Commission’s “broadband for all” and 2020 initiatives. This is deserved, since satellite operators are making real investments in more consumer-oriented aspects of broadband delivery, including broadband-to-the-home and delivery of streaming movies. This potentially lucrative new sector leaves operators open to new risks, however, and obliges them to look beyond issues of spectrum allocation to net neutrality, and the gathering storm on these policies worldwide.
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The EU is seeking to develop net neutrality rules as a part of its “Connected Continent” goal, and network operators — regardless of the delivery mechanism — need to make sure they are not stung in the process. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have recently voted on a telecoms package, including initiatives to avoid a two-tiered Internet.
The proposed language tightly defines “specialized services” in a way that makes it nearly impossible for a network operator to enter into an agreement with a content provider and charge premium rates in return for prioritizing their traffic. The legislation now says that specialized services can only be offered if an operator’s network capacity is sufficient to provide services in addition to Internet access services, and if offering them is not to the detriment of Internet access service quality and availability. The rules must now be negotiated with member states and it is as yet unclear whether the net neutrality proposals will pass before this Commission’s mandate ends in the summer.
Internet advocacy groups and content providers have embraced this development as preserving the open Internet, but fixed and mobile telecoms operators have argued that these measures will limit innovative new services and consumer services, hampering investment in Europe’s digital economy.
Net neutrality has also been the subject of legal action against the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and of new rules under consideration. The FCC’s 2010 “Open Internet” order, which established net neutrality in the United States, put in place rules to safeguard transparency and prevent blocking and unreasonable discrimination in last mile connections to consumers to ensure that lawful website applications, or competing services are not blocked by providers, noting exceptions for “reasonable network management.”
Following a challenge from Verizon that resulted in a February 2014 court ruling, the FCC is now expected to adapt its rules, and use the regulation of both information services and common carrier services to prevent Internet service providers from blocking legal sites or services. While some argue the court’s decision means the death of net neutrality in the United States, the FCC remains committed to the principle of net neutrality and is searching for ways to enforce the principle and address the court’s concerns.
Elsewhere, Brazil’s recent Marco Civil da Internet bill, which would enshrine net neutrality into law, passed through the lower house of Congress and awaits Senate passage. Other governments such as Colombia’s have adopted or are considering net neutrality laws, and still others were waiting for a steer from the recent World Telecommunications Development Conference but got little, if any, direction from that meeting. For now it remains to be seen how similar the resulting landscape will be across these geographies and what variations may be negotiated.
What is clear is that net neutrality will be legislated, likely with varying rules, worldwide. Satellite broadband operators — who increasingly aim to provide consumer broadband services, and are expected to be part of the coverage solution as noted by Commissioner Kroes — need to be on top of these new measures to ensure their network management practices remain within the regulations and their business targets remain achievable.
Nina Beebe is director for emerging markets at Access Partnership in London. She assists satellite service integrators, operators and others in securing market access and licenses on a global basis.