Why SDN and NFV thinkers should care about net neutrality

Now that a circuit court struck down net neutrality rules, will SDN and NFV be used as tools to create an anti-competitive Internet?

When a DC circuit court struck down the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) net neutrality rules two weeks ago, there were bigger implications for the SDN and NFV world than many realized.

With net neutrality, the FCC had extended "common carrier" laws to broadband providers, requiring them to offer fair and equal access to the Internet for all content. Essentially, the rules held broadband providers to the same standards as telecom operators, which always had to offer equal-access telephone lines. But in the Internet world, this meant content providers couldn't pay off operators for more capacity or better performance. That was deemed anti-competitive.

Anti-competitiveness is counter to the very essence of SDN.

When the court decided that broadband providers didn't have to live up to these common carrier rules, it opened the door for broadband providers to offer preferential service to certain kinds of content and users.

Here's where SDN and NFV come into the equation. If broadband providers go this route, they'll use SDN and NFV to granularly parse out the network to prioritize services. In fact, they'll see this as an opportunity to generate revenue using SDN and NFV. Potentially, it'll even be a driver for investment in these technologies.

We saw early signs of this during a SearchSDN Tweet Up last year, where participants touted the use of SDN for service agility -- or the ability to provide better network services with different levels of QoS for specific applications or groups of users. The idea is that by using SDN, policy can be swiftly applied, so someone accessing YouTube for a kitty video would get less quality than someone accessing a high-definition video conferencing session.

That's all fine in the enterprise -- after all, corporate content delivery networks (CDNs) and private clouds would be exempt from net neutrality rules anyway, explains telecom and NFV expert Tom Nolle, of CIMI Corp.

But in the public network, operators can scale this technology to dynamically provision applications and supporting network services through orchestration. Applications and services will be provisioned in seconds as opposed to weeks – and so will the policy that enables their level of performance.

That's healthy for the telecom and Internet service provider business, says Nolle.

"Until now, there has been no revenue fee for delivery of content. So the guy who carries the traffic makes no money whatsoever. Now the possibility exists that there will be revenue stream for the premium content. That could ignite investment in ISPs we haven't seen in a long time," he said.

That may be true, but it also seems counter to the kind of competition that sprung from FCC deregulation and allowed many of these operators to be born in the first place.

What's more, anti-competitiveness is counter to the very essence of SDN. From its inception, SDN has been about breaking the bonds of traditional, closed hardware networks that were inflexible and prevented interoperability and multi-vendor environments. SDN has made it so software developers could change the way we architect, implement and manage networks without huge investment dollars for hardware. In fact, SDN brought to life network startups -- a term that hasn't existed almost since Cisco was born. It brought about the concept of open source networks and commodity switches. It would be saddening to see it used as a tool to enable an anti-competitive Internet.

This week, the Free Press, along with an alliance of organizations, delivered the FCC a petition with a million signatures , and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says he will announce the commission's next steps shortly. Keep your eyes open, SDN world. Net neutrality matters.

This was first published in February 2014

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