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Vodafone UK Says it’s Unable to Offer Free BBC Bitesize Access

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021 (4:28 pm) - Score 7,152
mobile net neutrality uk

Mobile operator Vodafone has said that they won’t be following EE’s (inc. Plusnet and BT) lead by offering free data (mobile broadband) access to BBC Bitesize (education) content during the latest COVID-19 lockdown because it is “not possible,” at least not without applying the same rule to the whole of the BBC’s UK website.

Part of the issue stems from the technical challenges involved, which is something that we explored in more detail last April 2020 after a number of mobile operators began zero rating (no charge) data usage on specific NHS websites (here). Despite this, it’s still possible to run up data charges when loading such sites.

The problem is that this won’t work on all third-party (remote) content that gets pulled into the zero-rated site as it loads, such as embedded videos from a different server (e.g. YouTube) or other resources (e.g. javascript / media libraries, Google code, fonts etc.). The quickest way around that would be to zero rate data charges on those third-party sources too, but that quickly becomes quite tedious.

Naturally the BBC is quite a large organisation and their Bitesize content is directly integrated through the main website domain (bbc.co.uk), which is not unlike their other services (e.g. the popular iPlayer streaming platform). Separating out Bitesize is thus a fair bit harder than on other education sites.

On top of that Vodafone has some other legal concerns about Net Neutrality, which under the circumstance don’t seem to be terribly relevant. Ofcom are highly unlikely to penalise mobile operators for zero rating sites like this during the pandemic, at least not without looking a little silly.

NOTE: Net Neutrality requires broadband and mobile providers to treat all internet traffic on their networks equally (i.e. avoid favouring specific services and blocking or slowing access), but it’s often only been lightly enforced in the UK.

Helen Lamprell, Vodafone’s External Affairs Director, said (BBC News):

“[Zero rating] sounds simple enough to do in theory but there are a number of technical and legal challenges. For example, if an education-resource site hosts some of its content on another platform, such as YouTube, as is often the case, we would have to zero-rate the whole of YouTube.

[It’s also] not fair to other content providers [and would be difficult to square with] legal obligations around net neutrality”.

At present it’s still not entirely clear what solution EE, BT and Plusnet (all part of the same group) have adopted to resolve this issue for their own mobile customers (here), although there are various possibilities that come to mind. Likewise, it remains to be seen if any data charges will still be raised once this goes live on their network(s), which is due to occur by the end of this month.

We should point out O2 and Three UK are also in the same boat as Vodafone on this one, or at least they haven’t yet made the same commitment as the BT Group operators. However, Vodafone has, not unlike some other operators, pledged to zero rate access to the Oak National Academy resource(s).

Leave a Comment
22 Responses
  1. Vodafony says:

    Yeah more like we don’t want to. Just like they don’t want to offer free Sims in the new lockdown while all the other major networks do or offer data.

    1. Eh? says:

      You mean the 350k SIMs that they’ve supplied to schools don’t count?

      https://www.vodafone.co.uk/mobile/pay-as-you-go-plans/schools-connected

      Seem to recall they were the first out of the blocks on that.

      Voxi (their budget brand) is also giving unlimited data at £10 for unemployed.

    2. Vodafony says:

      ” in the new lockdown “… missed that bit did we ?

    3. JitteryPinger says:

      Vodafone are still supplying sim cards, schools near me managed to get them early this month and supplied them to a lot of people.

  2. zz says:

    I suspect other networks have only partially zero rated Bitesize content (third party elements in the pages will still be billed) in order to get the virtue signalling PR points. Whereas Vodafone have at least admitted its not possible without zero-rating huge swathes of the Internet.

    1. Iain says:

      You could probably zero rate sites accessed at a similar time to the BBC. Not that it’d be trivial.

  3. Michael V says:

    All they need to do is zero rate BBC bitesize addresses. 3rd party addresses don’t need to come into the list.
    BT can do it.
    But Vodafone do complicate things +they are just high maintenance.

    At the end of the day, it’s a choice.

    1. Alex M says:

      Bitesize is located at the hostname bbc.co.uk, with HTTPS enforced.
      iPlayer is located at the hostname bbc.co.uk, with HTTPS enforced.

      The difference is the path that comes after (/iplayer vs /bitesize). As this is an encrypted connection, the network provider cannot see the path, only the hostname (bbc.co.uk). If things were how the BBC used to operate, with bitesize content at bitesize.bbc.co.uk, things would be a lot easier.

      To zero rate in this case means the whole of bbc.co.uk, which includes things a service provider might not necessarily want to zero rate, like iPlayer.

      I suspect EE and others have done so regardless and just hope that in the meantime this flaw in zero rating is not widely abused.

    2. Steve says:

      @Alex M

      The page they visit is bbc.co.uk/iplayer or /bytesize but you’d think the content might come from alternate domains? I’d be surprised if iPlayer content didn’t come from some third party CDN.

  4. Buggerlugz says:

    Judging by the quality of its content (and the fact it is just been used by teacher too lazy to set classes proper set out home tasks themselves) this is probably a good thing.

  5. Jacob says:

    Good on Vodafone for standing up for net neutrality! Finally a provider is taking this seriously, we need to see a lot more of this in the UK in future.

    1. Fishfingers says:

      There is a difference between a temporary relaxation of net neutrality for non-paywall public service based based content for the benefit of a large part of society during a pandemic vs permanent competition advantage. I agree generally with net neutrality though but this is for a special case.

    2. A_Builder says:

      Total nonsense.

      It is a pathetic can’t do response from Voda.

      Education; and
      Supporting deprived segments of society

      have both been recognised charitable objectives since the original Charities Act.

      All they have to do, is to issue a voucher from their charitable arm and they are untouchable.

      If OFCOM were stupid enough to interfere the optics are terrible and they would all deserve a P45.

      I don’t often get strident about things on here but this really does take the biscuit for corporate irresponsibility, buck passing and lame excuses.

      Customers do have memories and if Jimmy next door got support for an iPad SIM from EE/BT/ or CF/Hyper fixed FTTP and your kid Jenny gets nothing you might well vote with your feet and change company to get your kid the FREE help that they need that is on offer from companies that have grasped that kids do need help and that the optics of offering the help are really good. Oh and it is a brilliant customer acquisition strategy that Voda have helped them with by playing prune…..

  6. TBH says:

    They could just have a server crawl the bitesize sites and log what resources are accessed outside the domain and then allow those specific elements to also be discounted from data usage. Run it once a day to keep up to date. Simple. I’m sure there are many creative ways that probably aren’t that technical if they allowed their staff to discuss and trial methods.

    1. A_Builder says:

      I totally agree with you.

      It is quite common to scrape a site in that way. We do it daily, on an e-commerce site I own, so we can find any broken or changed links. That code took about 90 minutes to write. So it is not hard.

      You could even have a portal for Bitesize to have a resources link url list on. They might even have one. Then you could compare….

      Lot of possible solutions and no real problems that can’t be solved.

    2. TBH says:

      Yup, their excuse just screams “we’re not even going to try”.

      Another option might be a dedicated proxy for their users to access the site through. Not sure on the details but I’m sure given a bit of time their staff would come up with something if they just let them.

      All-in-all, a shabby excuse that highlights their true nature.

    3. Laurence 'GreenReaper' Parry says:

      But Vodaphone does not know you are accessing those elements. Just that you are accessing *something* on BBC.co.uk, or YouTube.com. Heck, if they ever get to fully rolling out TLS 1.3, you won’t even have the hostname.

      A browser plugin could do it, but mobile browsers tend not to host plugins. If it’s a phone running their software, it could possibly be done as well. Really, though, temporarily raising data caps or just allowing all news content to be free might be the best approach.

    4. TBH says:

      As the proxy server would be relaying everything to the user, all the data will appear as though it was from the proxy and as such can be tracked by the ISP and discounted. They just need to make sure the proxy server can only access the elements they want to allow free data access to, in which case they would use my first scraping suggestion so that they can keep the proxy server up-to-date with what it is allowed to download and relay. If it isn’t on the list it doesn’t get transferred.

      There probably are problems with this suggestion as I’m not a network expert in any regards. However, I’m also not convinced that this is as hard as they have made out.

    5. Neil says:

      TBH: what proxy server are you talking about? Are you talking about proxying all requests to a resource of bbc.co.uk — in other words, running a network-level MitM attack against all (encrypted) traffic to bbc.co.uk? How’s that going to work without installing a root certificate from the operator’s CA on all mobile devices?

    6. 125us says:

      “ There probably are problems with this suggestion as I’m not a network expert in any regards. However, I’m also not convinced that this is as hard as they have made out.”

      Ever heard of Dunning Kruger?

    7. A_Builder says:

      I think a few people are missing the point.

      All you need to do is to zero size the content issued FROM a particular group of URL’s.

      There is no interest as to whom is connected to them. So the privacy thing is a red herring.

      And if you don’t have the wits to do that the next easiest thing is probably for them to ask YouTube to create a dedicated virtual channel that the content can be served through.

  7. JitteryPinger says:

    Has anyone actually tested the EE/BT claim that its just ‘bitesize’ getting zero rated, maybe it is the whole BBC and iPlayer that’s unrated.

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