Is Pro AV in neutral territory?

What does net neutrality mean for pro AV? Tim Kridel finds that getting a definitive answer is as easy as getting a firm grip on a wet bar of soap.

Net Neutrality. If you haven't heard the term, there's a good chance you will soon. 
Net Neutrality basically is a philosophy where telcos and other service providers treat all data traffic equally, even when it involves a competitor. For example, under Net Neutrality, a telco wouldn't be allowed to prevent or degrade its customers’ access to Skype even though that service is siphoning off some of the telco's telephony customers.
The Net Neutrality debate centres around quality of service (QoS) and money: Telecom operators argue that they’ve each spent tens of billions of dollars or euros building networks that enable third parties to sell bandwidth-intensive services that, unchecked, would overwhelm their infrastructure and degrade QoS for all customers. They perceive Net Neutrality as limiting both their ability to manage their networks and to charge some of those third parties an extra fee for the extra burden they create.
“Assuming the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who control the ‘pipes,’ will be the one providing such hosted services, Net Neutrality laws can negatively affect the QoS that these ISPs can potentially offer, as they will not be able to offer guaranteed QoS – including bandwidth, latency and packet loss – to their customers,” says Sagee Ben-Zedeff, director of new technologies at Radvision, whose distributors include Midwich in the U.K.
“For non-ISPs, Net Neutrality offers the ability to offer over-the-top services to customers by using the data pipes of any ISP. Such services need to deal with unmanaged networks, where specialised algorithms and technologies need to be used – technologies that are not offered by most of today’s AV players. Without Net Neutrality, the ISPs will be able to limit such vendors and practically control the market.”
Although the Net Neutrality debate often is perceived as limited to the U.S. market — and there only the telecom segment — there are a couple of reasons why it bears watching by EMEA AV integrators. One is the trend toward running AV traffic over IP networks, sometimes including public ones.
“Three essential parameters affect visual communication: bandwidth, packet loss and latency,” Ben-Zedeff says. “If any of these parameters is affected by the introduction of Net Neutrality – or lack of it – the whole AV value chain will be affected.”
Another is the growing number of EMEA countries — such as Italy and Japan — that are considering developing Net Neutrality laws. And in June, the European Commission began soliciting input from the public, service providers and businesses for a Net Neutrality report that it plans to issue by year’s end.
The U.K. Office of Communications (Ofcom) recently briefed analysts and others on its view of Net Neutrality, which includes urging service providers to go public about whether and how they give one customer’s traffic preference over others’. 
“Its focus is on the two questions of anti-competitive discrimination and transparency,” says Julian Morrison, research manager at Pyramid Research, which tracks the telecom industry. 
“[But] it quite clearly stated this discussion is not currently being driven by the fact that ‘Internet service providers, content providers, service providers and applications providers are currently banging down the doors of Ofcom with concrete examples of discriminatory practice that they would like us to take action against. Actually, the evidence of a problem here is massively outweighed by the rhetoric that is being generated about this issue as things stand today.’”

More than consumers

Like some of its peers in other countries, Ofcom is watching how the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tackles Net Neutrality. Although the debate is nowhere near resolution in the United States, some themes have emerged, such as which party or parties would have to pay to have their traffic prioritised.
“Where the FCC’s implicit approach is that the consumer will be the one to bear any eventual charges for managing the network, Ofcom has stated that there is no current reasoning against a ‘two-sided market’ where ‘content, application and service providers may be asked to pay some contribution towards the cost of managing and operating [the] network,’” Morrison says.
So far, most debates over Net Neutrality have centred around examples – some real, some hypothetical – involving consumer services. For example, the FCC told the cable operator Comcast in 2008 that it couldn’t throttle peer-to-peer traffic such as BitTorrent, although a court ruled against the FCC in April 2010.
One wild card is if and how Net Neutrality laws would apply to business services, including pro AV applications such as videoconferencing and video surveillance.
"I haven't seen anyone explicitly say that Net Neutrality is uniquely a consumer phenomenon and that enterprise services are exempt," says Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at Ovum. "However, most of the most ardent advocates are supposed consumer rights groups, which tend to focus most of their arguments on consumers."
In pro AV, one hypothetical example is a telecom provider that offers pro AV services under its own brand or the brand of a business partner. Could that provider choose to give priority to its AV services, even if it comes at the expense of third-party AV services? In theory, yes. In practice, doing so could spark a PR backlash, which then prompts regulators and legislators to do something – but only if the practice is discovered or disclosed.

“In most cases, for high-end AV services, such as telepresence, it is likely that hosted service providers will cooperate directly with ISPs to guarantee their QoS – which practically means breaking Net Neutrality to support such services,” says Radvision’s Ben-Zedeff.

You get what you pay for?

For years, many service providers have offered their enterprise customers options — such as service-level agreements (SLAs) — to help ensure that their traffic has certain QoS guarantees. These options are transparent in the sense that regulators and customers know they exist. That transparency makes them fundamentally different from, say, a telco that cuts a back-room deal with a content provider to give its traffic priority over non-paying rivals.
A lot of enterprise traffic – including AV – travels over private, managed networks, which in theory should be unaffected both by Net Neutrality laws or the lack of them in countries that haven’t tackled the issue.
“Many telepresence networks are based on private networks rather than the public Internet, and as such, Net Neutrality regulations simply don't apply,” Dawson says. “However, should a third party want to run telepresence over the public Internet it would become relevant, but only just. Net Neutrality really only affects the access provider: specifically, the company providing the broadband line to the customer. A third party offering telepresence wouldn't therefore be directly impacted. 
“But if in theory the access provider decided to block or degrade the telepresence service either because it was consuming excessive bandwidth or because it was deemed competitive, Net Neutrality regulations would likely make that illegal. If, on the other hand, there was no Net Neutrality regulation in place, an access provider could do that with impunity, although most wouldn't for fear of bad press and losing business.” 

What about wireless?

The picture becomes even fuzzier when the AV traffic spends part of its journey over a public network. 
“In most cases, AV traffic will run over a myriad of networks: privately managed ones and public ones,” says Radvision’s Ben-Zedeff. “We utilise both types of connections between our various offices world wide for our videoconferencing network.”
Two other examples are digital signage and video surveillance backhaul that run over cellular.
Some participants in the Net Neutrality debate argue that cellular networks should be exempt from any new regulations simply because there are so many more variables that affect QoS and network capacity than in wired networks. As a result, they argue, Net Neutrality regulations would tie the hands of mobile operators by limiting their ability to manage their networks, including prioritising some traffic types over others.
Regardless of how that debate is resolved in each country, mobile operators have a growing selection of traffic-management tools. For example, UMTS/HSPA networks are common in EMEA countries, with a new, faster technology – LTE – available in a few. 
All of those technologies are ideal for high-bandwidth applications such as surveillance and signage. These technologies also have, baked into their standards, mechanisms that let operators manage different traffic types in different ways. For example, there are four different traffic classes – including Streaming and Interactive – and parameters such as Guaranteed Bit Rate and Traffic Handling Priority and Allocation.
The upshot is that operators can use these tools to ensure, for example, that real-time traffic such as video gets priority over e-mail messages and other traffic that isn’t as delay-sensitive. The catch is that video traffic is increasingly common on cellular networks, thanks to applications such as Apple’s FaceTime. These video telephony services use 1 MB to 3 MB per minute, which means they’re using a significant amount of network resources, which are particularly scarce in urban environments – the same places where digital signage and video surveillance are common.
As this trend grows, operators will face a new challenge: Instead of continuing to prioritise video over other traffic types, should they also start prioritising some video services over others? The answer depends partly on whether there are applicable Net Neutrality regulations.
If an operator does have that option, it could benefit pro AV. For example, the operator could sell multiple tiers of service, each with certain QoS and bandwidth guarantees. If the signage or surveillance customer is worried about its traffic being delayed, it could pay extra for a higher service tier. 
For now, Net Neutrality is a wild card in most countries – when regulators are addressing it all. Besides keeping up with the regulatory actions in their markets, about all AV integrators can do is see what technological solutions are available if Net Neutrality laws – or the lack of them – start to affect their clients. Those solutions also can be helpful for managing QoS regardless of what the law does or doesn’t’ say.
“As video moves to the desktops, more people are using it, which causes a significant increase in bandwidth usage,” says Radvision’s Ben-Zedeff. “This happens along with other types of video and data applications that usually share the same data connections. Due to this, AV integrators should invest in equipment that is designed to deal with unmanaged networks and guarantee high levels of experience regardless of specific network conditions, as networks are dynamic in their nature.”

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