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Ofcom Probe Mobile Providers for Possible Breaches of Net Neutrality

Friday, June 29th, 2018 (11:37 am) - Score 1,900

Mobile operators Three UK and Vodafone in the United Kingdom have again been identified by a new Ofcom report as potentially being in breach of the EU’s rules for protecting Net Neutrality (i.e. there must be no serious blocking or slowing of access to legal websites or internet services).

The regulation is designed to protect the open internet from abuse (here), which essentially means that broadband ISPs and Mobile Network Operators (MNO) cannot impose excessive restrictions against internet traffic. Naturally there are some exceptions to this, such as for general Traffic Management and security reasons etc.

The rules are applied via a self-regulatory approach in the United Kingdom, which is governed by the Broadband Stakeholder Group and their 2016 Open Internet Code. This code commits signatory ISPs to neutrality and transparency in traffic management on their networks (details).

On top of that Ofcom produces an annual report to the European Commission on their monitoring of the rules. Last year’s update found “no major concerns regarding the openness of the internet in the UK” (here), although it did note a few special offers or discounts that nearly went over the line.

The 2017 report also warned that a number of unnamed broadband ISPs were potentially failing to comply with the rule that says: “end-users have the right to use terminal equipment of their choice.” At the time no details were released but it’s believed that this related to Tethering plans on a mobile operator (i.e. where you use your Mobile Broadband via a Smartphone to give another device, such as a Laptop, internet access).

Since then a number of major providers have launched new services or restrictions that could further test the rules, such as TalkTalk’s move to restrict access to the TeamViewer service (here); although this can be lifted by request. Likewise Vodafone’s new “Passes” that offer “endless” data usage of certain specific apps (here) and Three UK’s “Go Binge” for zero rated Netflix streaming (here) have also raised questions etc.

The 2018 Review

Overall this year’s report didn’t highlight too many new concerns and, in terms of “safeguarding open internet access and traffic management“, Ofcom said they have completed an initial review of “zero-rated” offers by Three UK and Vodafone, and “found that they, as structured at the time of our review, do not present material competition concerns warranting intervention.”

However the regulator said they did identify Traffic Managementissues of concern” and have thus opened an enforcement programme to learn more about these and other such practices, which has included sending information requests to the UK’s largest ISPs. As a result of the information received, they’ve already opened two investigations.

One of these is concerned with Three UK’s practice of prohibiting Tethering on some tariffs and slowing down certain kinds of traffic for customers while they are roaming. The other is concerned with Vodafone’s practice of restricting the resolution of video traffic in its “Passes” offer.

Ofcom’s findings are that..

• At least one mobile ISP, Three, has restricted tethering on certain tariffs. This appears to conflict with the requirement of the Regulation that end-users should have the right to use the terminal equipment of their choice, and so we have opened a formal investigation;

• The new zero-rated offers of Three and Vodafone that came on the market in 2017, as structured at the time of our review do not appear to warrant formal investigation in respect of competition-related concerns; and

• Two “zero-rated” offers by mobile ISP Vodafone, however, have restricted the resolution of video. This raises concerns about the propriety of Vodafone’s traffic management under the Regulation, and so we opened a formal investigation. With respect to traffic management, we also identified that mobile ISP Three has slowed down certain kinds of traffic for certain customers. This too raises concerns about compliance with the Regulation, and so our investigation of the company also addresses this issue.

We actually covered the probe of Three UK and Vodafone back in March when it first began (here) and unfortunately today’s update doesn’t really add anything new, although it does explain a lot more about the regulator’s rationale for their investigation. You can read the full Net Neutrality Report online.

Leave a Comment
16 Responses
  1. Avatar Michael V says:

    I find this stupid. Three – Each cell site has Traffic Managemenr. This is essential for busy times. Like a site on a motorway,the site needs to share capacity fairly to all users.
    Tethering – the Essential plans are for those who don’t use much. My mother has an Essential plan & it’s great. There needs to be these basic allowance plans to keep the cost down & for users who have no interest in much data.
    Go Binge – to use this, one must have data allowance, of a user has used all data then they can’t use service. I think this is fair.

    Vodafone.
    Zero rated data – no one likes restrictions but if they are offering all the video one can use, there will be limits.
    I can honestly say, streaming background video on YouTube at 720p along my stretch of M4 or around south East Wales is great. I rarely see buffing. The MNOs are offering some great services. As long as they don’t abuse net neutrality then let them carry on

    1. Avatar Michael V says:

      I ment to say that I’m a Three customer. I can’t speak for Vodafone

    2. Avatar Mike says:

      This looks like it will end with either the reinstatement of the One Plan or death of AYCE.

      As someone on an old and cheap AYCE plan this is a cause for worry.

      Hopefully 5G will be here before OFCOM’s conclusion and that should make allowing tethering less of an issue for Three.

    3. Avatar Spurple says:

      Three shouldn’t be allowed to offer an AYCE plan that depends on what device you’re using.

      Ee for example offers plans with shedloads of data which should satisfy the people who claim that they only use data moderately comperedbto people who tether.

      A byte is a byte no mater how many megahertz the end user terminal is clocked at.

    4. Avatar Mike says:

      @Spurple

      Free market?

  2. Avatar un4h731x0rp3r0m says:

    Ridiculous waste of time and more than likely money investigating stuff like this. There is not a provider (or make that the LARGE provider) in the UK that at some point has wrongly blocked some type of legal content, be they a mobile or fixed line supplier. So straight away by default that makes them all in violation of Net Neutrality rules at some point in time. Best just fine everyone and give some jobsworth a pat on the back.

    Couple that with the fact all ISPs will have some type of traffic prioritisation system (they have to otherwise things would literally implode) and that also makes them in violation.

    Providers that still have small monthly allowances, likewise technically are in violation.

    All PAYG providers as far as my prior and limit knowledge goes do not allow tethering oh and the big 4 mobile providers who sell to other MVNOs also do not provide the same speeds and or frequencies as they do on their own product (example being Plusnet Mobile supplied by EE and its band 20 limitations if you are with Plusnet mobile).

    Then there are the fixed line providers who still do not like you using your own equipment and the bigger ones that do allow you to as good as refuse to support you if you have an issue with your connection and are not using their supplied POS router. Even if the problem has nothing to do with the device in the home.

    Ridiculous rules and ridiculous to just pick on the odd provider when they are all in violation in some form here in the UK. As is typical with anything governmental in this country only the mental bit seems to be applied.

  3. Avatar Chris P says:

    So when can I buy my own cable modem and connect it to VM?

    How about one that can be easily configured to change the transfer rates? That’ll break the docsis standard and ruin vm’s business model. It’ll up their subscriber base no end though but to the further detriment of other customers.

    1. Avatar Spurple says:

      Do you similarly plug dangerous equipment to your household electricity network?

      Allowing end user choice does not mean abolition of standards or quality controls.

      I place my VM hub in modem mode and it does what I need. Rate control is done inside the network when needed, not at the end user’s modem.

    2. Avatar Clifford says:

      “So when can I buy my own cable modem and connect it to VM?

      How about one that can be easily configured to change the transfer rates?”

      I think you will find that is illegal in a greater capacity than worrying about net neutrality.

  4. Avatar Chris P says:

    @ Spurple

    what do you mean by dangerous equipment. In a competent persons hands most things are fine but perhaps in yours most things are dangerous!!

    At the beginning of cable internet in the uk we had to purchase our own modems and go through the phaff of getting it registered etc. In the US net neutrality rules mandate customers can connect their own modems to the service. In the uk most dsl operators permit customers to use their own modems too. Mobile phone providers are happy to allow customers to add their own phones on their networks too.

    the cable system runs very different to dsl and the DOCSIS standard requires the subscribers modem to participate in rate limiting which is achieved by the modem receiving a config file from the cmts.the file describes traffic shaping parameters limiting / shaping bandwidth to whatever the subscriber has contracted for.

    do what you want with your vm supplied modem, its still possible for us customers to use our own gear if VM allowed for it, as evidenced by millions of US cable customers.

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/TP-Link-Docsis-Speed-Cable-Tc-7610/dp/B010Q29YF8#customerReviews

    1. Avatar Clifford says:

      The USA and what is allowed there has nothing to do with EU rules and laws.

    2. Avatar Mike says:

      Soon to be UK rules and laws 🙂

    3. Avatar Spurple says:

      The OP talked about plugging a modem that can ostensibly bchange physical layer network speed.

      How do you jump from there to calling me incompetent?

    4. Avatar un4h731x0rp3r0m says:

      “Soon to be UK rules and laws”

      I highly doubt it is legal in the US or will be legal in the UK to take a cable modem and manipulate it to receive a higher down or up stream than what you pay for. To assume or even try to argue that is part of net neutrality is stupid, that would be theft plain and simple.

  5. Avatar Mike says:

    @un4h731x0rp3r0m

    How would it be theft?

    1. Avatar un4h731x0rp3r0m says:

      What would you call taking something you did not pay for?

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