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A New Normal for Broadband Prioritization

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Broadband networks in the U.S. are holding up well so far, despite massive increases in internet usage from home for telework, distance learning, telehealth, and, of course, entertainment. Some European networks have not been so robust, with the EU asking Netflix and other streaming services to reduce its traffic by 25 percent to prevent congestion. Given the large share of bandwidth used to stream Netflix, such action may help.

But the coronavirus crisis is revealing in ways that we have not seen before that different types of internet traffic are not equally valuable. The EU has decided that streaming video for entertainment is less valuable than everything else, for example.

The value of internet traffic varies along more dimensions than just streaming and not streaming. It is becoming apparent how different types of internet service and guarantees can benefit different types of activities.

It is important to ensure that Americans can have immediate access to critical care, public safety, education, and other high-value services by allowing them to have priority over other uses that can tolerate delay.

Consider telehealth. The federal government and many states have dropped regulations that made telehealth more difficult to practice. Some practitioners, like psychologists and others who can work from home, find themselves competing with kids and spouses for bandwidth. Many providing medical care from home would likely value the ability to connect with their patients without their connections buffering or freezing.

Distance learning, too, could benefit from such actions. Much of it does not require any prioritization—downloading assignments, writing essays, and even one-way video streaming, for example. Other parts of distance learning might benefit. Low latency for interactive lectures. An ability to put a particular student’s video in higher definition when she has a question or for one-on-one time with a teacher.

Other activities are also likely benefit from connections optimized in specific ways. Even online entertainment, including streaming and gaming, is more important for many than it had been. Depending on their preferences, some people may want faster speeds, lower latency, or improvement on other dimensions of connectivity. They may even have different preferences at different times of day.

In the U.S., it is legal for ISPs to offer this kind of variation (how well they can do that technically is a different question that I am not qualified to answer), but, as far as I am aware, no ISP is. The reason is likely fear of a backlash from net neutrality supporters and regulations that might follow.

I do not mean to dismiss net neutrality proponents’ concerns.

Net neutrality is a modern incarnation of the ongoing question of how to share access to networks that have high fixed costs and much lower marginal costs. In earlier days of telephony, this argument took the form of debates regarding interconnection prices—debates that continue today. There is no “correct” answer to this question, only tradeoffs, and the optimal answer may change over time.

And an important change has happened. The tradeoffs are different. The value of high-quality connections in telehealth is higher than it was, as is the ability to have a robust connection to the office or to make sure that teachers can connect properly with their classes. In the old days—meaning January—some may have argued for more investment in broadband networks rather than paid prioritization in order to accommodate more entertainment streaming, which people value highly. Today, we need to optimize the network we have, and prioritization is the way to do that.

Prioritization raises equity issues, even beyond the important problem of broadband access. Resources, such as using the eRate program for distance learning, are available to help, and we will have to be creative and generous in finding ways to support schools and communities that may not have sufficient resources available to benefit from prioritization.

Given the crisis, we should also understand that externalities mean the government, not just the market, should have a voice in certain decisions. We already do this for public safety on wireless networks—that’s how FirstNet works. In today’s world, the government may decide, for example, that certain elements of telehealth should be prioritized without payment.

When the world returns to normal, conditions will again change, perhaps to a state where arguments against prioritization carry the day.

For now, however, the way to make best use of our broadband networks during the pandemic is to prioritize high-value uses.

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