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Ofcom Probe Three UK and Vodafone Over Net Neutrality Concern

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018 (1:30 pm) - Score 2,248

The telecoms regulator has today opened a new investigation to examine whether some of the new 4G mobile plans and add-ons being offered by Three UK and Vodafone are compliant with the EU’s new Net Neutrality rules, which are designed to protect the open internet from abuse.

The rules (guidelines here) essentially mean that broadband ISPs and Mobile Network Operators (MNO) cannot impose excessive restrictions against Internet traffic (e.g. no serious blocking or slowing of access to legal websites or internet services), except for things like general Traffic Management and security etc.

In the United Kingdom these rules are generally applied via a self-regulatory approach, which was established by the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) and their 2016 Open Internet Code. This code commits signatory providers to neutrality and transparency in traffic management on their networks (details), which is embodied by three core principles.

The Core Principles
* Users should be able to access all lawful content.
* There should be no discrimination against content providers on the basis of commercial rivalry.
* Traffic management policies should be clear and transparent.

However Ofcom’s on-going enforcement programme (here), which was setup after the new rules were introduced, has today raised a number of concerns about several Three UK and Vodafone services or practices that could potentially be incompatible with the aforementioned rules.

Focus of the Probe

The investigations will examine the following:

Three UK’s practices of:

* Restricting tethering – the practice of using one device to connect another one to the internet – on certain plans offered by Three;

* Imposing restrictions on the devices in which a SIM can be used – e.g. where a SIM purchased for a mobile phone cannot be used in a tablet; and

* Traffic management practices such as ‘throttling’ or intentionally slowing down particular categories of traffic (e.g. video traffic, Peer-to-Peer and Virtual Private Network traffic), including where traffic management is applied when customers are roaming.

In relation to Vodafone:

* Traffic management practices relating to ‘Vodafone Passes’ – e.g. throttling particular categories of traffic – including where traffic management is applied when customers are roaming; and

* The transparency of exceptions to zero rating within the ‘Vodafone Passes’ products, which mean that certain functions within certain zero-rated applications will use customers’ general data allowance and not be zero-rated.

Mobile operator Three UK are known for only allowing Tethering on their ‘Advanced’ plans (i.e. their Essential plans do not allow Tethering) and they tend to restrict this via a so-called ‘Personal Hotspot’ allowance, which can be set at a lower data cap than the main tariff (e.g. their 100GB and ‘all-you-can-eat-data’ plans both come with a 30GB capped tethering / hotspot allowance). Not to mention their ‘Go Binge‘ zero rating for Netflix etc.

Likewise Three UK are also known to use Traffic Management on certain services (they call this TrafficSense), although the details of how they apply this tend to be quite vague but it can impact P2P file-sharing and VPN services (especially when EU roaming). The rules do allow for some general traffic management but it’s still possible to fall foul.

Meanwhile Vodafone recently launched a new range of OPTIONAL ‘Passes‘ (here) for Pay Monthly subscribers, which means you pay a set fee and then can enjoy “endless” data usage of certain specific apps via your Smartphone (e.g. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Spotify and Viber etc.); although they cap each pass at 5GB when EU roaming.

The Net Neutrality rules do not outright prohibit zero-rating usage like the the above, although Ofcom is still expected to ensure that operators’ do not undermine the goals of the regulation (i.e. the context of the service is very important, such as the size of an operator, scale / impact of any related features and how long they’ve been available). In other words, small operators and short lived services / features are less likely to attract concern.

The guidelines for all this can be quite flexible and as such we suspect that Vodafone and Three UK won’t, at this stage, be too concerned by the regulator’s investigation. Ofcom said they intended to publish a further update in June 2018.

UPDATE 2:12pm

A spokesperson for Three UK has told us that they’ll be “working closely with Ofcom to understand their concerns,” while Vodafone went a bit further.

A Vodafone UK Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“We are very disappointed with Ofcom’s decision to target Vodafone Passes.

Our Passes allow customers to access their favourite content without fear of running out of data or attracting out of bundle charges. They are open to any content provider of video, music, chat and social. 22 content providers have signed up so far, ensuring Vodafone customers can enjoy the widest selection of worry-free access to content across the industry.

Vodafone does not “throttle” speeds on Vodafone Passes, either in the UK or while customers are roaming. The Video Pass is optimised so that all of our customers have a high quality experience when streaming content on the network. Optimising means making the bandwidth available that enables videos to be delivered in a faster, more efficient way, while still providing the best smartphone viewing experience, and without compromising the experience of other customers who do not use a Vodafone Pas
We developed Vodafone Passes in direct response to customer feedback and have provided clear information to customers about how they work. We will be explaining all of this to Ofcom during the course of their investigation.”

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
7 Responses
  1. Avatar Michael says:

    I can’t comment on Vodafone, but I’m with Three… Now, for their Go Binge to work, one has to have data allowance. If someone does not have data allowance then they can’t have unlimited access to the list of services available with Go Binge. I think that is keeping it fair.
    Traffic Management… When a site is heavily congested it will share out the capacity to all devices. I’m a really heavy data user. I stream while in the car & I have never experienced Throttling. The way ofcom are describing this is stupid as all four Mobile Network Operators have traffic management in some form. It’s to keep everyone connected & able to use what they want.
    Now as for Tethering… Three can’t just let everyone Tether as much as they want as that would put strain on their Networks. 3G, 4G data & 4G voice/VoLTE. Again this comes down to traffic management. If someone wants to Tether more than 30GB then buy an add on our buy mobile b’band. Ofcom need a SLAP.

    1. Avatar Mike says:

      I hope the status quo remains or Three might just kill off what’s left of AYCE altogether if tether usage must match overall data allowance.

      As a heavy Three user even back in the One Plan days I’ve only noticed traffic management on 3G, 4G seems to be unaffected.

  2. Avatar Wujek Pawel says:

    What about tethering while in roaming (in EU)? As far as I know the only network operator allowing tethering while in roaming is Vodafone.

  3. Avatar spurple says:

    @Mike, AYCE should be killed to preserve neutrality if necessary.

    It’s absurd to say “you can have unlimited internet, but only if you use it through your phone”. Internet is internet, whether you use it through your phone or tether it to a computer.

  4. Avatar Michael says:

    @spurple. I do on some level agree that we should be able to use our data how we want & I wish I could, but if an operator allows us to tether all allowances then that would put strain on any network. Seeing as capacity is and always will be an issue then I agree there needs to be a compromise. 30GB tethering with the Advance plans are a good balance. I guess it don’t bother me as I happily watch a lot of video content on my phone & bash thru 145GB a month with my 30gb Tethering too.
    Come to think of it, if we were able to Tether all of our allowances then at some point we would probably be forced back down to 3G HSPA+ speeds. Or even 3G UMTS speeds, they weren’t much faster than 2.9G – EDGE. [Remember how bad they were?! Hahaha!]

  5. Avatar Jaime R says:

    Three without doubt throttle data on “feel at home”. Been to a few big cities in Europe and South America and got ISDN speeds (h+ full signal strength showing on phone) while locals in the same location using the partner’s SIM get decent/expected speeds

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