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Will Net Neutrality Ruling Impact VoIP and UC Services?

Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the 2011 FCC Rules that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all Internet traffic equally. Verizon had challenged the FCC regulations based on the FCC not having a congressional mandate to regulate the Internet, and Internet providers not being classified as common carriers. The impact of the court's ruling opens the door to tiered pricing models, and the potential "blocking" of content and services that are not favored by the ISP without an added-cost price tier that enables their use.

As VoIP, Video IP, UC, and SIP are all dependent on having a service delivery capability that enables quality real-time experiences external to the enterprise network, this ruling is of great interest to those of us in the No Jitter community. If an ISP decides to relegate all UDP/VoIP traffic to a low class of service, the impact could be explicit or random disruptions in the traffic flow and user experience.

Explicit disruptions could come though limiting the bandwidth available for those services in a specific service plan. Or disruptions could occur as the non-ISP real-time traffic is not afforded the proper class, and regular congestion causes random issues. With real-time traffic relegated to a low-level queue with dramatically reduced buffers, RED or other network processes may impact packet delivery. However, with tiered pricing, if the user pays for a "guaranteed service", that traffic may be put into the higher level queues, albeit for a price.

Many of the services that have emerged over the last 10 years in the VoIP world depend on the Internet. Examples include remote agents, mobile users, telecommuters, etc. The capability of a VoIP or UC solution to use an available IP service may be reduced if it is now necessary to have a premium service to get reasonable voice or video quality.

This ruling may have a significant impact on Cloud IPT, Contact Center, and UC services if the service is not delivered by the access ISP and is dependent on the Internet to deliver packets to and from customers. If a customer's ISP requires a premium access service to enable real-time traffic to third parties, this is an additional cost that must be added to the Cloud service TCO.

In addition, how these services and service levels will be managed across peering relationships is not defined, raising the issue of traffic being "lost in translation." If an intermediate service provider does not treat the traffic correctly (relegates it to a low-level queue), the impact may be a significant loss of quality of experience.

Verizon took the lead in the action against the FCC's Net Neutrality order, indicating in oral arguments last fall that it would like to implement different service pricing models. Last September, Verizon lawyer Helgi Walker said, "I'm authorized to state from my client (Verizon) today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements." If this is the case, we may see a new pricing tier on Internet access from Verizon that is required for third-party SIP, for example.

The concept of Net Neutrality is that any Internet Service/User has a "given right" to use the Internet in an equal/unconstrained way. This ruling removes that assumption, at least in the U.S.

Very good arguments can be made about why the management of traffic and bandwidth, latency and packet loss in a structured way can optimize overall performance of an IP service provider network. In fact, it is arguable that, without the ability to manage services, the long-term capability and economic model of the Internet is not sustainable.

However, this ruling opens the door to a wide variety of new pricing and delivery models, not all of which may be helpful for VoIP and UC implementers. The challenges of managing the competing interests of the ISPs, consumers, businesses, content providers, and new applications and services will be significant.

At this point, unless there is an override at the Supreme Court, or congressional action, Net Neutrality is not the rule in the U.S., and the FCC will not have a role in managing this new and complex space. Verizon has made it clear that the ISPs firmly believe that they need the capability to manage and price traffic to have a profitable business model. However, the impact on UC, SIP, and Cloud communications may be significant if this eliminates the opportunity for next-generation services to be widely adopted without users paying for additional network services from their ISP.

As communications professionals, this is an area we all should pay attention to.