IRENE THAM, TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT

Timely for Singapore to strengthen net neutrality rules

On Thursday, the five-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States voted in favour of the toughest rules yet to protect a "neutral Internet", potentially setting the stage for further global reforms.

The new safeguards are meant to ensure that every content provider on the Web is treated equally by Internet service providers (ISPs).

For instance, ISPs that carry and deliver online content to end-users cannot create "fast lanes" for content providers that pay extra for prioritisation. Also prohibited are the blocking and "throttling", or slowing down, of lawful content and services.

The rules will apply to mobile-phone Web access as well.

The groundbreaking decision has put the US ahead of many nations in ensuring that the Internet will remain open to innovation, by not discriminating against poor start-ups.

So far, only Brazil, Chile and the Netherlands have introduced similar "Net neutrality" legislation. Specifically, these laws protect consumers from having to pay varying fees to ISPs and mobile operators for accessing services online.

They help preserve the original intent behind the public Internet, created in the mid-1990s.

ISPs, or "carriers" in tech-speak, were meant to carry all legitimate content impartially to end-users. End-users, or customers, do pay fees based on the speed of the links they use for access. However, ISPs are not supposed to charge companies more for prioritising their data. For example, they cannot charge YouTube extra for putting its videos on faster lanes to reach customers.

Without "neutrality", consumers could end up having to pay more to access the Internet. ISPs could, say, package services sold to consumers and charge different fees. A basic service would give access to just e-mail and social networks. "Premium" might let consumers stream videos and music, while "Super Premium" would allow downloads.

Brazilian law professor Ronaldo Lemo reportedly said: "Today, that sounds like an aberration but, without Net neutrality, it's a possibility."

Singapore's position

IN SINGAPORE, carriers can sell fast lanes to content providers.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) requires ISPs to ensure that user access to legitimate websites does not slow down to the point where online services become "unusable". However, it does not ban throttling outright, which means ISPs have the option of slowing access to some websites, without rendering them unusable.

IDA also imposes minimum service-quality standards such as 99.9 per cent network uptime, and requires ISPs to publish typical surfing speeds for their networks during peak times.

Given the FCC's stand, it would be timely for Singapore to review some rules. It would also be apt in view of comments made in February last year by Singtel chief Chua Sock Koong at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. She said regulators should let carriers charge major Internet content providers for consumers to have faster access to their content. This means, for instance, charging Google, WhatsApp or local content providers to speed up their content to customers.

The comments sparked criticism from netizens.

A review is also called for because many of Singapore's existing broadband rules were set quite a while ago. Technological advances now allow ISPs to pinpoint what websites people go to. Previously, they could identify traffic only by type, whether it consisted of video or still images. Thus, the ability to sell fast lanes to online content owners is a recent development. In a high-profile deal in February last year, video streaming operator Netflix agreed to pay a fee to American ISP Comcast so its videos could travel on fast lanes to customers.

Contention over fast lanes

SOME see nothing wrong with carriers selling fast lanes to giant bandwidth gobblers such as Netflix and YouTube. These sites require a fatter "pipe" - which is more costly for carriers - for smooth video streaming.

After all, as Ms Chua argued, content companies are making profits from using carriers' infrastructure to reach customers, but not paying for it. Content companies such as Skype and WhatsApp have also eaten into carriers' voice and messaging revenues.

However, proponents of a neutral Internet feel that carriers are already making money from consumers, who pay more for higher-speed broadband plans. Carriers should thus deliver all content without discrimination.

There is also a potential conflict of interest as some carriers are content players too. Singtel last month announced a new video-streaming service called Hooq for the Asian market. As Mr Benjamin Tan, managing director of local ISP SuperInternet, put it: "What is to stop a telco from picking on providers that compete with it for business, thus stifling innovation?"

Contention over throttling

THIS issue also raises debate. ISPs can slow down certain online services, but IDA's current rule does not define the minimum "usable" standard. For instance, is it acceptable for an Internet user to be interrupted for five seconds multiple times during a 45-minute video stream?

Digital media lawyer Matt Pollins, an associate with Olswang, does not expect regulations in Singapore in the near future to go as far as those passed by the FCC. Still, he said, IDA's position could come under intense scrutiny in one to two years.

"Singapore is now seen as the Silicon Valley of Asia. Tighter Net neutrality rules might be needed to ensure that Singapore's many Internet start-ups can compete on a level playing field with established operators," he said.

itham@sph.com.sg