Content Delivery Networks and Trai's Net Neutrality consultation: What the stakeholders recommend

Whether or not CDNs should be under the ambit of net neutrality regulations remains a point of contention.

The responses to Trai's consultation paper on net neutrality regulations are coming in. The paper asks stakeholders a series of questions, and one of the questions is how net neutrality should be applied to enterprise solutions, the internet of things (IoT), content delivery networks (CDNs) and virtual private networks (VPNs). Out of these, regulations on CDNs are likely to have a direct impact on the way regular users experience the internet.

CDNs are a way to provide access to content and data at higher speeds. Publishers of content, such as media houses and video streaming sites, pay CDNs to make their content available faster to the end users. The CDNs then pay ISPs to host the content locally, in data centers that are closer to the end users. The end result is a better and faster user experience, for accessing ebooks, looking up information and audio or video streaming. This is the typical business model of a CDN, but there can be variations. A CDN may not necessarily pay the ISP to host a copy of the data, or a content owner may directly host their content with the ISP.

Google has a Google Cache in the local data center of all the major service providers in India. Akamai and Limelite are CDN service providers in the traditional sense, and have implemented their CDNs on the data centers of the operators. Tata Communication is one of the leading Indian providers of CDN services. Netflix has its own single purpose CDN known as Open Connect, bears the cost of integrating, and does so with any service provider. Netflix does not pay or get paid for prioritisation. Delivery of video content is one of the biggest benefits offered by CDNs, and regulations on CDNs will affect video content owners the most.

Industry bodies and trade associations

The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) wants a separate consultation paper to formulate the regulations necessary for India, based on more data with specifics on how CDNs are deployed in India. "When consumers request content, it can be delivered from a local server operated by the CDN provider, rather than a remote internet server. As the information is not delivered over the internet core, there is less traffic congestion and the quality of services is higher. It is our recommendation that TRAI should collect more data about CDNs specific to India, and a separate consultation paper to this effect would also help."

The Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) has recommended that CDNs should be treated as network optimization solutions, and does not need any regulatory oversight. “Provisioning of services by network optimization solutions by establishing CDN networks and direct interconnection agreements are in the right direction since it enhances the end user experience. These should be allowed and no restrictions should be applied for these. Such arrangements should be permitted based on mutual agreement without any regulatory oversight.”

The Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUSPI) has pointed out that video traffic in particular can lead to congestion and overload the network. The AUSPI has asked for exclusion of video content based CDNs from net neutrality regulations. “Ensuring TSP's manage event based video traffic based on their own classification, will ensure overall better quality of internet experience and should not be considered as a violation of net neutrality guidelines. It is, therefore, is strongly suggested that the CDN s and their video traffic should be considered as an exception to the 'prioritization' core principle for Net Neutrality and paid or otherwise should be allowed for video traffic.”

Nasscom has recommended that the use of CDNs should be monitored for potential net neutrality violations by the service providers. “It  is important to note despite CDNs, the responsibility of last mile delivery still the rests with the TSPs and there is no direct link between the CDN and end user. Therefore, we believe that compliance to Net Neutrality principles should rest with the TSPs, and their adherence thereto by TSPs should be enforced by Trai.”

Service Providers

Tata Communications has recommended that CDNs should not come under the purview of net neutrality regulations, "While CDNs help deliver content in a more efficient manner to end users, the service arrangement or contract is actually between the content provider and the CDN. As such the even the direct interconnection arrangements between CDNs and TSPs should be left to the market forces."

Idea has indicated that CDNs benefit everyone in the value chain, and as such should be encouraged without any need for regulation. CDNs "not only reduces latency and thus improves network efficiencies, but also drives major improvements in the end-customer experience. Additionally, the bandwidth requirement between the Origin of content and TSP’s or the ISP’s is reduced substantially. It is a practice that is increasingly being adopted by the internet world, and all major content providers are resorting to this practice. Such an arrangement results in a win-win situation for all the players in the value chain, such as the content providers, TSP’s and consumers, and thus needs to be encouraged further without being regulated in any way, based on mutual commercial arrangements."

Airtel has also recommended that service providers and content owners should enjoy the freedom to make private arrangements for CDNs, without regulatory intervention. "We recommend that the provision of CDN and direct peering arrangements between content providers and TSPs should be based on mutual agreements. Adequate freedom should be provided to both parties (TSPs and content providers) to construct their arrangements without any regulatory intervention," is Airtel's response to the question of CDNs.

Aircel has reccomended that net neutrality regulations should not apply to CDNs. “CDN and direct interconnection should also be kept outside the purview of net neutrality”

The state run service providers are of the opinion that Trai needs to keep a watch on CDNs.

BSNL has agreed that certain types of specialized services such as enterprise solutions and IoT require a different approach to quality of service, and as such should be excluded from net neutrality regulations. However, BSNL has recommended that CDNs should not be excluded as a specialized service. "It is felt that services delivered by content delivery networks and direct interconnection arrangements should not be treated as a specialised service, and no differential treatment be matted (sic) out by them."

While MTNL has indicated that CDNs improve speeds without affecting access to other content, reduces congestion in the network, it still recommends that CDNs should be monitored by the telecom watchdog for anti-competitive practices adopted by the content owners, the CDNs or the service providers. "The regulator/ agencies must keep a watch of such liberty by any service provider for controlling the market in such a way being adverse to competition in the industry."

CDN service provider: Akamai

Akamai, one of the leading providers of CDN services, has recommended that CDNs should not be covered under net neutrality regulations. Further, Akamai has recommended that service providers have the freedom to choose which CDNs to host. “TRAI should allow for ISPs’ ability to differentiate among CDN providers, such as by offering network access to some CDNs but not others. If ISPs were unable to differentiate among CDNs in this way, it could potentially mean that ISPs would not allow any CDNs network access because they would be unable to find the physical space to accommodate all CDNs, which would slow Internet performance and work to the detriment of Internet users. Since CDNs utilize different technologies to provide their services, they require different things from ISPs, and ISPs should have the flexibility to accommodate these different needs. Further, we encourage TRAI to advocate for a more flexible and principles-based approach to net neutrality as the best method of achieving TRAI’s aim of promoting innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure.”

The Internet Freedom Foundation 

The Internet Freedom Foundation recognises the potential of CDNs to violate the net neutrality principles, but cites lack of enough publicly available information about the contracts between content owners, CDNs and service providers to recommend policy decisions. “There is potential for TSPs to abuse interconnection agreements to violate net neutrality principles, but we lack enough information for clear policy recommendations on this at present. Part of this information asymmetry is the nature of how the peering and transit ecosystems function, with any commercial arrangements in this space being directly negotiated by private parties with TSPs and not made available for study or trend mapping. TRAI should seek more information and put in place a reporting framework or knowledge sharing sharing process for TSPs requiring regular disclosure of privately negotiated interconnection agreements, paid peering/transit arrangements.”

Video Content Owners 

As pointed out before, video content is among the most demanding when it comes to bandwidth, and CDNs are most beneficial when implemented for bringing video content closer to the point of delivery. Any regulations on CDNs are likely to most affect the ability of video content owners to reach their audiences.

Hotstar is of the opinion that CDNs should not come under net neutrality regulations, "Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and direct interconnection arrangements should not be subject to net neutrality. They form part of the backbone of the Internet infrastructure and do not connect to the last mile access network. Besides, CDNs and direct interconnection arrangements do not connect to all end-points of the Internet and are the subject of private arrangements between contracting parties."

Netflix suggests that "Policies should facilitate non-discriminatory interconnections between ISPs and CDN providers to enable a better and more efficient Internet. It is important that regulation not inhibit the deployment of CDNs."

By and large, as the content is hosted on the data centers of the ISPs and delivered to the customers, the stakeholders are of the opinion that CDNs should be excluded from net neutrality regulations. However, there may be asymmetries in the ease of access to a particular site or service, depending on the private arrangements between the content owners, the CDNs and the service providers. A localized copy of the data saves bandwidth on international cables, and reduces congestion on the internet.

The recommendations show that the internet cannot be made up of neutral pipes, and absolute net neutrality is actually disastrous when it comes to ensuring a high quality of service, as well as reduce congestion in the network. A 2002 essay by Tim Wu, "A Proposal for Network Neutrality" that coined the phrase "net neutrality", itself notes that total net neutrality is not possible, considering the sophistication of modern networks.

Whether or not CDNs should be under the ambit of net neutrality regulations remains a point of contention. However, the consumers and the regulator would definitely stand to benefit with more details on the private arrangements between the service providers and the CDNs. The kind of arrangements made, the amount of money paid by the parties, and the specific services that have tied up with service providers will allow stakeholders to suggest better regulations, the consumers to make more informed choices, and the authorities to better monitor the implementations for potential net neutrality violations or anti competitive practices.

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