Update: Net neutrality – is Ofcom too timid?

{ Posted on Oct 12 2010 by Neil Watson }

It seems net neutrality, the principle of treating all Internet traffic equally in order to provide a fair and equal service for all users, suffered a further blow when Ofcom announced its decision not to step in as regulator after receiving responses to its traffic management and net neutrality consultation. The consultation was initiated to discuss Ofcom’s regulatory responsibilities and any future duties under the revised framework, along with a debate on why traffic management and net neutrality is important to both citizens and customers. The regulator’s reasoning behind its decision is that the UK’s ISP market is considered effectively competitive and does not present any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour and should therefore not face restrictions on all forms of traffic management.  Worryingly, Ofcom has made this announcement despite the fact that BT and the TalkTalk Group freely admitted they’d favour any video or content providers that want to make a ‘deal’ in their Ofcom responses.

neilwatson Update: Net neutrality – is Ofcom too timid?

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on net neutrality, International director of Ofcom, Alex Blowers, said “Ofcom is committed to dealing swiftly with problems as they emerge, but we are also committed to approaching issues in such a way as not to assume a problem before a problem has emerged.” Surely with BT and Talk Talk blatantly stating their intent in their consultation responses it would not be hard to ‘assume’ that this will become a problem in the near future.

However, it appears Ofcom believes such practices would benefit the UK Internet industry. Blowers also stated at the eForum “We see real economic benefit for a two-sided market to emerge, especially for markets such as IPTV” and only insisted that ISPs would need to be ‘transparent’ with customers about such arrangements.

We think a ‘two-tiered’ approach to the Internet raises many potential issues and agree with recent comments from ISPReview, an independent source of ISP information, that if ISPs start favouring one content provider, they could risk confusing the market and alienating their customers.

The issue of net neutrality has also been debated heavily in the US. Back in November 2009 we covered an article called Net neutrality – is legislation necessary, (opinion.enta.net: Net neutrality – is legislation necessary?) where the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) took a very different approach, planning to introduce legislation to enforce net neutrality. The proposals caused a major uproar amongst US based ISPs, as they were required to be more transparent about the management of their networks and they would become unable to block or slow down certain types of traffic such as P2P. At the time we argued that a global discussion was needed on the subject rather than it being dominated solely by the US, allowing countries such as the UK to have their say. I suppose, on a positive note, at least now we have began to join in the debate.

The original Ofcom consultation discusses the need for traffic management to be more ‘transparent’.  Ofcom states “traffic management is ‘non-negotiable’. We agree and consider that it is critical that consumers are appropriately informed of traffic prioritisation, degradation or blocking policies being applied by their ISP and that they are able to factor these in when making purchasing decisions.”

We completely agree that providers should be open and honest about the traffic management policies they apply and agree with the fundamental principles of net neutrality and keeping the Internet equal to everyone. However, we also understand first-hand the increasing pressure on ISPs to provide a high quality service for all users whilst the demand for and the subsequent cost of bandwidth continues to increase. It is inevitable that ISPs will need to put some sort of traffic management policy in place to ensure a high quality service for all customers. However, our real concern over Ofcom’s decision is that ISPs could favour specific content providers, with whom they have made lucrative deals, therefore negatively impacting the service for the competitors of those content providers and creating anti-competitive behaviour within the market. Such behaviour will inevitably compromise their customers’ user experience and choice. We believe Ofcom will need to monitor this situation very closely.

Have your say!

What do you think about Ofcom’s decision to stand back from enforcing net neutrality?  Do you agree that the Internet should be left to the ISPs so long as they are transparent about their traffic management or do you feel the FCC’s approach is more effective? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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