Network Slicing Could Harm Consumers And Competitors, Group Says

An open internet advocacy group sent a letter to the FCC urging them to regulate network slicing

Network Slicing Could Harm Consumers And Competitors, Group Says
Photo of Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project and the letter's principal signatory.

WASHINGTON, February 13, 2024 – T-Mobile’s practice of “network slicing” could have negative impacts on the telecommunications industry by decreasing quality of service for consumers and decreasing competitiveness among mobile companies, according to a February 7 letter by the New America’s Open Technology Institute. 

Network slicing creates multiple virtual networks layered on top of a physical network. Each network slice is capable of crafting its own security rules and topology. Slices can also be used to prioritize specific applications. 

The letter took issue with T-Mobile’s practice of network slicing, claiming that the carrier proposed a “wholesale exemption from the open internet rules for any specialized application or service.” 

Net neutrality rules prohibit internet service providers from prioritizing data from specific companies for preferential treatment. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel unveiled a plan to restore net neutrality rules in September 2023, reversing the Trump administration’s gutting of the policy in 2017. T-Mobile’s network slicing practices could undermine the restoration of net neutrality. 

It alleges that the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association is actively helping T-Mobile and other mobile carriers skirt potential rules against paid prioritization by redefining which entities count as non-Broadband Internet Access Services (non-BIAs services).

The letter concedes that network slicing can be acceptable and useful under specific circumstances. These services are typically those that cannot operate on the standard internet, such as factory automation or agriculture. However, OTI alleges that T-Mobile is attempting to have all data and applications delivered over slices to be exempted from open internet rules by being treated as non-BIAS services. 

OTI warns that although mobile carriers may initially set aside only a few slices for their prioritized services, they will eventually reserve more and more slices for their own purposes. The organization also suggests that allowing mobile carriers to enact paid prioritization could incentivize outright selling of preferential treatment to edge providers. This could cause congestion on networks, since mobile networks tend to have less capacity than wireline networks.

The letter also warns that allowing paid prioritization for applications on mobile network “slices” could kill Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) competitors, since they do not have the capability of slicing their networks. MVNOs could suffer from having the quality of their services decline substantially behind larger carriers. 

OTI outlined a number of suggestions to help prevent this. The organization suggests the FCC adopt California and the European Union’s practice of regulating specialized services with sensitivity to how they affect other BIAS users and edge providers. The organization also argues that the rules for exempting specialized services from open internet rules should be “more specific and nuanced.” For example, if a specialized service engages in network slicing, the application should be one that cannot operate on the regular internet. 

Network slicing has become a major focus for major wireless carriers. Nokia announced on Tuesday that they completed a 5G edge cloud network slicing trial in collaboration with Microsoft. On Friday, BT Group, Ericsson and Qualcomm Technologies announced they utilized network slicing to exhibit, “end-to-end consumer and enterprise 5G differentiated connectivity”

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