The Challenge of Net Neutrality Policies for 5G Networks

By Zoraida Frias and Jorge Pérez Martínez, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid

IEEE Internet Initiative eNewsletter, November 2017

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Although 5G is still at an embryonic state, the next generation mobile network has already been envisaged to provide what some authors have called a “fiber-like” experience for mobile users[1]. In this regard, 5G will predictably provide ultrafast broadband as an evolution of 4G services, along with integrating low-latency and ultra-reliable capabilities that will enable a wide range of new—but so far unknown—services. Unlike previous network generations, which were designed as general-purpose connectivity platforms with limited differentiation capabilities across use cases[2], 5G aims at creating an ecosystem able to meet technical needs from the so-called “vertical industries,” such as healthcare, energy, or automotive.

It has been widely agreed that 5G will not be just an incremental advancement of 4G[3]. The promised “fibre-like” performance will not be met by only designing a better radio interface, but rather the whole infrastructure will need to reach unprecedented levels of flexibility to squeeze network resources that are much scarcer than in a fixed infrastructure. To achieve said levels of flexibility, future mobile networks are expected to experience a transformation similar to that of computing technologies in terms of how physical resources are demanded and consumed.

Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) and Software Defined Network (SDN) technologies will underpin 5G network infrastructure to create “network slices” capable of meeting dissimilar network requirements on-demand and out of the same physical equipment. Therefore, a network slice will be composed of a collection of 5G network functions and radio access technologies settings that are combined for the specific use-case of a business[4]. As the network slices can be created and priced on-demand, endless new business-to-business relationships are expected to emerge in a new context where “anything” is provided as a service[5], including Mobile Content Delivery Network as a Service (CDNaaS), Traffic Offload as a Service (TOFaaS) and Machine Type Communications as a Service (MTCaaS).

The ever-increasing sharing of physical resources among different services and applications has given rise to the debate of network neutrality[1], which refers to the principle by which all the internet traffic is treated equally. The attempt by some telecom operators to increase their revenues by charging content and application providers in exchange for guaranteeing certain Quality of Service (QoS), triggered concerns among policymakers years ago. Over a decade later, and following varying legal disputes, especially in the U.S., ex ante[2] regulations aiming to ensure that “all traffic through the internet is treated equally” were passed both in the EU[6] and in the U.S. in 2015[7]. Although former rules, like the FCC Open Internet Order 2010[8], subjected mobile networks to less restrictive net neutrality principles than their fixed counterparts, the new regulations make no distinction on either side of the Atlantic. Additionally, a commercial practice called zero-rating, which consists of pricing mobile data traffic differently, has exacerbated the debate on neutrality over the last few years.

In Europe, the Telecom Single Market (TSM) Regulation[6], which enshrines the network neutrality principle, allows so-called “specialized services” when, and if, the network capacity is sufficient to provide them in addition to internet access services. Specialized services are implicitly defined in the Regulation as “services other than internet access services which are optimized for specific content, applications or services, […] where the optimization is necessary in order to meet requirements […] for a specific level of quality[6].

This definition might present various serious issues with regard to its interpretation in a future 5G context. From the purely technical standpoint, mobile network resources in 5G are, by definition, optimized to provide the network performance required by the application layer through an automated Application Programming Interface (API). By stating that “specialized services do not provide connectivity to the internet” it appears that the internet is a single unified network rather than the network of networks that it actually is. In addition, whether optimization is necessary or network capacity is sufficient imply difficult judgments that would require constant assessments of the “best-effort” performance against a potentially optimized one.

In a context where specialized services are offered through a “network slice broker functionality” that controls access and sets the price of the virtual networks on-demand per the service level agreed, how can we know that a service is not “over optimized”? How would policymakers guarantee fair competition between equivalent services of a certain vertical industry whose services need specific QoS and are thus allowed to be deemed as specialized services? “Network slicing”[9] consists in providing different network capabilities according to the requirements of application-layer services, and thus it arguably constitutes a form of traffic discrimination on commercial grounds, therefore forbidden by the network neutrality rules. However, whether such optimisation can be objectively necessary looks hard to assess.

The ability to offer network capacity as a service will be crucial for vertical industries to develop, whose emergence depends on the market capability to deliver QoS-based connections. These services are foreseen and allowed under the current rules. However, much of the potential of network virtualization techniques envisaged by 5G technologies cannot be unleashed under a regulatory vision that presumes that best-effort is always best. Particularly because best-effort is increasingly being left to a decreasing proportion of the internet, giving a false illusion of neutrality and promoting the rollout of ever more private networks. Indeed, evolved network architectures, such as Content Delivery Networks, are foreseen to expand to mobile with 5G technologies[5], which will dramatically enhance Quality of Experience (QoE) of some services, despite not being optimized or prioritized.

Current policy frameworks are far from recognizing that the increasing heterogeneity of digital services needs an evolved network performance, or that substantial innovation is still possible in another layer than the application layer. Net neutrality advocates argue that a “neutral” network is the only manner to guarantee future innovation, but innovation should not be at odds with technological evolution. Especially because technological evolution is likely to lead to other types of innovation. Much like in computing, 5G networks will dramatically lower the entry barriers to infrastructure through converting capital needs into operational expenses for innovative applications that we cannot currently predict.

The issue is no longer whether imposing “neutrality” will prevent the creation of fast and slow lanes on the internet, but rather whether technology breakthrough can meet an increasingly heterogeneous demand in ever more efficient and transparent ways. While we often examine regulatory instruments to better enforce users’ rights and safeguard competition, the key might be future technologies, whose development we could be preventing with current rules. 5G networks face the challenge of being developed in a context of high uncertainty, where most of the services that underpin 5G business models appear to be unlawful under current rules. Future research is essential to start a new interdisciplinary dialogue, critical to preserve the level of innovation that has long characterized the internet both in the technical and business domains.

1 This article is based on an original research article entitled ‘5G networks: Will technology and policy collide?’ published in the Journal Telecommunications Policy in June 2017.

2 For a comprehensive review of existing literature on network neutrality, the reader is referred to (Krämer, Wiewiorra, & Weinhardt, 2013).

3 The concept of ‘ex ante’ regulatory safeguards refer to rules that are set to anticipate conflicts, i.e., before they can actually occur.


[1] Rodriguez, Fundamentals of 5G mobile networks, John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

[2] 5GPPP, 2nd 5G workshop with verticals. Brussels,9 November 2015.Available at:

[3] G. Andrews et al., "What Will 5G Be?," in IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications, vol. 32, no. 6, pp. 1065-1082, June 2014. doi:10.1109/JSAC.2014.2328098

[4] NGMN Alliance. (2015). 5G white paper. Next Generation Mobile Networks, White Paper. Available at:

[5] T.  Taleb, A. Ksentini and R. Jantti, "Anything as a Service" for 5G Mobile Systems, in IEEE Network, vol. 30, no. 6, pp. 84-91, November-December 2016.
doi: 10.1109/MNET.2016.1500244RP

[6] European Union, Regulation 2015/2120 of the European parliament and of the council of 25 November 2015 laying down measures concerning open internet access and amending Directive 2002/22/EC on universal service and users' rights relating to electronic communications networks and services and regulation (EU) No 531 on roaming on public mobile communications networks within the Union.

[7] Federal Communications Commission, Open Internet Order, 26 February 2015. GN Docket No. 14-28. Available at:

[8] Federal Communications Commission, Open Internet Order. 21 December 2010. GN Docket No. 09-191 WC Docket No. 07-52. Available at:

[9] K. Samdanis, X. Costa-Perez and V. Sciancalepore, "From network sharing to multi-tenancy: The 5G network slice broker," in IEEE Communications Magazine, vol. 54, no. 7, pp. 32-39, July 2016.

Zoraida Frias Zoraida Frias

Zoraida Frias is an assistant professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. She has been a fellow of the Group of Information Technologies and Communications (GTIC) since 2010 where she has contributed to several research projects related to telecommunications regulation and public policies.

She holds a Ph.D. in Telecommunication Engineering from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and she has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition (CTIC) of the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Cambridge. Her interests revolve around competition policy, especially with regard to next-generation networks deployment and spectrum management.

Jorge Pérez Jorge Pérez

Jorge Pérez is a full Professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. He holds a PhD in Telecommunication Engineering from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (Spain) and a MA in Political Sciences and Sociology from the Universidad Complutense (Spain). He has acted as Professor of the Telecommunications since 1990, teaching and researching issues related to the socioeconomic aspects of information technologies and communications, along with telecommunications policy and regulation.

From June 1990 until February 1999, he was Chairman of the Official Association of Telecommunications Engineers. From September 2003 until June 2004, he was Director General for development of the Information Society at the Ministry of Science and Technology, and member of the CDTI and Public Business Entity RED.ES’ Boards of Administrators.

He is now the Director of the Spanish National Observatory of Telecommunications and of the Information Society (ONTSI) and the coordinator of the Internet Governance Forum in Spain (IGF Spain).



Mubashir Husain Rehmani Mubashir Husain Rehmani (M’14-SM’15)

He received the B.Eng. degree in computer systems engineering from Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Jamshoro, Pakistan, in 2004, the M.S. degree from the University of Paris XI, Paris, France, in 2008, and the Ph.D. degree from the University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris, in 2011. He is currently an Assistant Professor at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Wah Cantt., Pakistan. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Paris Est, France, in 2012. His current research interests include cognitive radio ad hoc networks, smart grid, wireless sensor networks, and mobile ad hoc networks.

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About: This newsletter features technical, policy, social, governmental, but not political commentary related to the internet. Its contents reflect the viewpoints of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions and views of IEEE. It is published by the IEEE Internet Initiative to enhance knowledge and promote discussion of the issues addressed.