Mobile 5G: Brave new world or regulatory nightmare?

6 Jun 2019

Eoin Kealy. Image: Three Ireland

Three Ireland’s Eoin Kealy outlines concerns that net neutrality rules may undermine one of the main features of 5G.

Operators throughout the world – especially in the US and east Asia – are starting to launch 5G services.

The early 5G services will first comprise faster mobile broadband and fixed wireless access. However, progressively, the 5G technology will become more able to support a wide range of different applications (such as smart homes, smart cities and the industrial internet of things) including services associated with artificial intelligence, telemedicine and autonomous driving.

Network slicing as an enabler

These new 5G services will rely on a core feature of 5G called network slicing. Network slicing is not a technology but rather an enabler for new business models.

Network slicing allows a network operator to provide dedicated virtual networks with functionality tailored to different services or customers over a common network infrastructure. It is a form of virtual network architecture, where connectivity parameters such as data speeds, latency, reliability and bandwidth are specifically tailored to serve different services over a single physical network.

The wide range of different services that 5G will support have greatly differing requirements. For example, thousands of machine-to-machine devices within a single-cell area may each only use small amounts of data, with no requirement for low latency or high speeds; however, mobile broadband and fixed wireless access will require high bandwidth to support large volumes of data, and automated cars will need high reliability and low latency to function effectively.

5G networks in combination with network slicing will enable customers to enjoy connectivity and data processing customised to their specific needs. One customer may require ultra-reliable services while another requires ultra-high-bandwidth communication or extremely low latency. With network slicing, operators will have the ability to deploy the specific functions needed to support particular customers and particular market segments, providing them with greater flexibility in managing their networks and spectrum.

The core interface between operators and their customers is currently not possible with 4G technology. With 5G, customers of operators will be able to interface with operators’ 5G core networks through an API, so that the 5G core can become part of third parties’ propositions to their own customers.

Network operators being able to deliver these specified, on-demand services is important to the success of 5G investment, both in terms of satisfaction of customer demand and return on investment.

Net neutrality regulation roadblocks

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that existing EU net neutrality regulation may inhibit the development of 5G services requiring network slicing.

The raison d’être of EU net neutrality rules is the safeguarding of equal and non-discriminatory treatment of traffic in the provision of internet access services, eg mobile network operators should not treat traffic differently based on bandwidth or degree of latency offered.

The EU Net Neutrality Regulation does allow for “reasonable traffic management measures” based on “objectively different technical quality of service requirements of specific categories of traffic”, which would permit differences in treatment of traffic. However, according to the regulation and guidelines issued by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), in order to be “reasonable” the traffic management measures must be:

  • Transparent
  • Non-discriminatory
  • Proportionate
  • Not based on commercial considerations
  • Treating equivalent traffic equally
  • Necessary to contribute to an efficient use of network resources
  • Not maintained for longer than necessary

This long list of uncertain preconditions for “reasonable traffic management measures” imposes uncertainty around the use of network slicing.

As described above, network slicing differentiates the treatment of data traffic according to its needs. It optimises the network resources to ensure each service gets exactly what it needs to function. The list of preconditions imposes significant barriers to offering network slicing.

For example, the requirement that traffic management measures be maintained for only as long as necessary implies that traffic management should be limited in time, and that operators should be applying and removing traffic management measures in real time. This is not a realistic set of circumstances for the availability of network slicing, which requires a more permanent form of traffic management.

It may not be surprising, given the uncertain preconditions above, there is a concern that net neutrality rules may be used to prohibit any differentiation in the treatment of data, which will completely undermine one of the main features of 5G.

Specialised services workaround

The EU regulation does foresee the possibility of operators offering services that require a specified quality of service requiring network management. These are called “services other than internet access services”, commonly referred to as ‘specialised services’.

If network slices can be defined as specialised services, this provision allows operators to optimise them, for example, by offering low-latency or high-reliability slices. There are, however, further restrictions on operators offering specialised services according to the regulation and BEREC guidelines.

For example, a service can only be offered as a specialised service if network capacity is sufficient to provide the specialised service in addition to any internet access service provided, and the specialised service does not affect the availability or quality of the internet access service.

Specialised services will be sharing network resources alongside internet access services on operators’ networks – all services on operators’ networks compete for resources in this way. Will this natural competition for network resources breach the requirement for specialised services not to affect the availability or quality of internet access services? It may require constant monitoring of network slicing to ensure it does not begin to breach the above preconditions.

At the very least, it introduces further uncertainty for operators around one of the core benefits of 5G technology for customers. Contrast the situation in the EU with the United States where the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules in late 2017 means no such uncertainty for operators and their customers.

Flexibility needed

The EU regulation and guidelines on traffic management raise important questions around the ability of operators in the current regulatory environment to use network slicing to deliver the benefits of 5G. As it stands, slices that require permanent management of network resources may be problematic. The rules around offering specialised services are overly prescriptive and impractical to apply.

In my view, a detailed review of the net neutrality rules by the European Commission and/or BEREC is urgently required to unlock the benefits of 5G services both for operators who have invested significantly in the spectrum and technology, and for customers who will be able to avail of new and innovative services delivered using network slicing.

In order to keep up with the United States in terms of technological innovation and new business models, the mobile communications industry needs net neutrality regulation in the EU that is flexible and responsive to the development of 5G. Unfortunately, that is not the case as it stands.

By Eoin Kealy

Eoin Kealy is senior competition and regulatory affairs manager at Three Ireland. He is an experienced adviser on EU, competition law and telecoms regulatory matters with a background in private practice and industry.