By: MarkJ - 26 August, 2010 (7:33 AM)
entanet uk ispBroadband ISP supplier Entanet UK has taken a few shots at developments in the USA, which recently saw Google and Verizon moot a highly controversial proposal for tackling Net Neutrality (the principal of treating all internet traffic as equal) that would effectively exclude wireless carriers, potentially creating a two-tier Internet.

Entanet’s Head of Service Operations, Neil Watson, said:

"If a two-tier Internet was allowed to evolve, providers like Verizon could charge a content provider such as Google for access to the ‘fast lane’. Therefore, customers using rival services such as Yahoo would experience much slower speeds than customers using Google, allowing Google to eliminate competitors because it has the resources to fund a better user experience. Secondly, ISPs such as Verizon could slow down competing services e.g. other providers’ VoIP traffic, again creating an unfair advantage.

Can you imagine the commotion if Google attempted something similar in the UK, consulting with BT without input from Ofcom for example? ... Our saving grace is perhaps the fact that we have Ofcom as a regulator, which arguably has more power and influence (currently at least) than the FCC, and the fact that we are partly ‘governed’ by the EU which is currently investigating its own net neutrality proposals."

Net Neutrality is a very complicated debate, especially if you take the principal too literally, which would mean that at some point most UK ISPs could be in breach. Many providers adopt basic Traffic Management and Shaping measures to help balance the load between services. After all, broadband is ultimately a shared "best efforts" product.

Even our own home computer hardware and software filters and moves internet traffic around to different services in ways that most people would never notice. The simple fact is that controlling the flow of data is often essential in order to keep networks running smoothly, not unlike Traffic Lights on the road outside (though traffic lights are often put in places that do not need them).

The Chief Technology Officer for Business ISP Timico UK, Trefor Davies, said on Monday:

"It should come as no surprise to anyone that engineers overwhelmingly support the idea of a free internet. The issue comes down to how do we go about defining net neutrality. It certainly is not possible to run the internet without some kind of network intervention, at least not in any way that makes economic sense.

Take for example the sporting events of this summer. Most ISPs’ networks hit capacity during the Football World Cup and Wimbledon Tennis. In an unmanaged network this would have resulted in traffic congestion and a degradation of the customer experience. Fortunately by and large the customer experience was not affected this summer because the vast majority of consumers internet connections were being managed. This means prioritising time sensitive applications such as VOIP, video and gaming ahead of less time critical ones such as the oft vaunted Bit Torrent file sharing.

To provide a network that can cope with unlimited traffic is something that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for. Based on the traffic levels this summer this would potentially add 50% to the cost of the average broadband connection (back of a beermat guestimate – a big proportion of the cost of broadband delivery is the backhaul bandwidth)."

At present there isn't a significant problem with this issue in the UK, at least not yet, although the way that some big broadband ISPs, like BT Retail, go about restricting speed to popular content, such as from the BBC's iPlayer service, is a concern.

UK ISPs have of course been doing the same to P2P for some years now, which many unfairly regard as the "bad boy" of the internet. This ignores the fact that P2P is now an essential part of many software update systems, gaming platforms and other legal services. Thankfully clever filtering can tell the difference, but not always.

The problem really occurs when ISPs, most likely any dominant market players, start prioritising traffic to the detriment of popular sites and services. iPlayer is one existing example, but others have suggested charging sites like eBay, YouTube, Facebook and Google or even services like Skype for access to priority traffic.

However "priority" traffic could easily end up meaning "as an alternative to slow speeds and a poor service". This is particularly a problem when you consider the increasing role that ISPs are seeking to have in content delivery, such as to launch their own IPTV services. Commercial interests often lead to abuses of power and before you know it we're back in two-tiered internet land.

Ofcom are at least starting to investigate this issue (here), although for the time being the regulator will probably just end up asking ISPs to be more transparent with their Traffic Management practices.

In reality ISPs aren't stupid, they know that doing anything which could slow or even prevent access to key services would be noticed. Internet customers are a highly mobile group and will move if the service becomes poor for their needs. Those considering a more aggressive approach would do well to remember that.
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