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BT Consumer CEO Seeks Softening of Existing UK Net Neutrality Rules

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 (4:59 pm) - Score 3,624
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The CEO of BT’s (EE) UK Consumer broadband and mobile division, Marc Allera, is attempting to resuscitate the age-old debate over Net Neutrality (i.e. treating all internet traffic on their networks equally) by calling for the rules to be changed because “there are very good reasons to enable preferential access to certain platforms.”

The original EU regulation was designed to protect the open internet from abuse (here), which essentially means that fixed broadband ISPs and mobile operators cannot impose excessive restrictions against internet traffic (i.e. they generally shouldn’t favour specific services by blocking or slowing access). Naturally there are some exceptions to this, such as for general traffic management and security reasons etc.

In the United Kingdom these rules are applied via a soft self-regulatory approach (i.e. it may be better to think of them as guidelines), which have been governed by the Broadband Stakeholder Group and their 2016 Open Internet Code. This code, which has been maintained post-Brexit, commits signatory ISPs to neutrality and transparency in traffic management on their networks (details).

The Open Internet Code’s 3 Principles:

* Users should be able to access all legal content.

* There should be no discrimination against content providers on the basis of commercial rivalry.

* Traffic management policies should be clear and transparent.

Ofcom has generally taken a fairly soft approach to enforcement of this, preferring to nudge operators into changing their ways rather than being more aggressive with penalties. As such Net Neutrality had begun to feel like an issue that the market has long since moved on from, but that may be about to change.

In-between calling for their high street stores to be redefined as “essential” retailers (i.e. permitted to remain open – regardless of lockdown restrictions), BT’s Consumer CEO, Marc Allera, has today also sought to re-open the Net Neutrality debate (in the distant past BT were one of those providers that often seemed to oppose net neutrality protections).

The remarks start off well enough by highlighting some arguably moral issues around COVID-19 and the zero rating of education sites (i.e. removing mobile data changes for access), which is fair, but this soon becomes conflated with wider areas and seems almost designed to re-cast the potential demise of net neutrality as somewhat more of a positive endeavour (many would disagree). The full quote is required for context.

Marc Allera said:

Elsewhere, we’ve been helping the Government get connectivity to school kids on mobile and on Wi-Fi through our Lockdown Learning support scheme. We’ve already distributed more than 150,000 vouchers, to almost 5,000 schools, and that number continues to grow. Part of BT’s Lockdown Learning support includes zero-rating BBC Bitesize and Oak Academy’s educational websites.

And with children returning to schools this week, we’re reviewing our zero-rating of these enormously popular websites. The problem we face is, allowing access for free to certain websites is incompatible with current net neutrality arrangements. Zero-rating large sites – for us and any other network operator – drives huge data traffic and costs onto networks.

It is clearer than ever that the way our networks are accessed and used is not equal. But what the pandemic has shown is that there are very good reasons to enable preferential access to certain platforms. And we believe now is time to explore what the future should look like, to enable everyone in the UK to benefit from connectivity and digitisation.

Current net neutrality arrangements also put pressure on networks to sustain the rise and rise of the most popular content and gaming platforms. The numbers we’re seeing on our network are huge. In November, we teamed up with Microsoft to offer the latest Xbox Series X|S consoles to our customers. The Xbox launch and subsequent game downloads, paired with an update to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and a Microsoft Windows patch created the largest traffic peak our broadband network has ever seen: 18Tbps. We’ve since seen that number surpassed over the Christmas period and a new peak of 21Tbps, driven by Premier League football being streamed live on Amazon Prime.

The biggest spikes on our fixed network typically happen when major sporting events on OTT TV coincide with games downloads. Evenings are usually the busiest time for our fixed networks because of gaming – a new battleground for all networks – and the popularity of on-demand TV. Last year, TV minutes viewed over IP surpassed those viewed on broadcast for the first time, according to Ofcom.

For network owners this is driving considerable extra cost. We’re relied on not only by our customers to deliver the connectivity they need every day, but also by the major content and gaming platforms who rely upon our networks to be blisteringly fast and reliable to deliver their services and content just as they intended. And yet the regulatory pressure and UK market pressure on customer prices is downwards – for all customers.

We think as an industry we will need to work much closer with all media providers. It’s in all of our interests, to keep our audiences engaged and customers happy, to deliver services and present content – music, video, film, games – exactly as it was intended. So we’re looking at how we can introduce new service layers and solutions that broadcasters, gaming providers and social media companies can buy into, to showcase their product in the best possible way.

It would ultimately mean more customers could feel the benefit of a faster, sharper, more reliable experience, no matter what they have connected to. Or where. These new ideas would see services and propositions, and media and telco services come together like never before.

Together, we can make TV content platforms better, and much more efficient. The proliferation of FTTP and 5G will enable the UK to migrate to an all-IP future for TV, for example. An adjustment to the existing net neutrality rules would enable us to ensure content is presented as the creators intended, without disruption to other parts of the net, offer better customer experiences to those who want it – including avid gamers – and create new business opportunities for network providers.

And this, in turn could create space for operators to support Government services at cost, or pro bono. Our focus is on being the connectivity partner that can make a difference. We want to be in a better position – for our industry and yours to be in a better position – to help create a better experience for our customers. And if those net neutrality rules are adjusted, it could also help us create the connected, digitally-included UK we all want to see.

BT doesn’t spell out precisely what kind of “adjusted” rules they want to see, although we’re of the view that the current approach helps to keep things fair and there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need to change that. Many of the arguments being made above seem to be familiar ones, albeit updated to reflect the modern market, but the same concerns about a weakening of Net Neutrality remain.

The biggest potential for harm could still occur if ISPs started favouring content sources based on who pays them the most money, which might in turn lead to a degraded experience for other users or services. Excessive access controls over content could one day also result in a walled garden internet experience. Another risk is ISPs being allowed to block certain legal platforms (e.g. allowing one VoIP provider while blocking another).

At this point it’s worth remembering that demand for broadband and mobile data services would not exist without internet content providers (e.g. YouTube, Netflix, websites etc.). ISPs may complain that the increase in related data usage from these raises their costs, but that’s just the nature of the beast and should continue to be reflected in the prices we all pay as end-users.

In the past we can recall one idea where certain ISPs from all around the world were considering asking content providers (e.g. Netflix) for money, like a digital mafia, to carry their content to end-users unfettered. Such an approach risks inhibiting the very content that makes the internet worth visiting.

Admittedly some services, like Netflix, complicate matters by using commercial peers that ISPs must then pay to access if they want to deliver the best service performance, but once again this could be simply described as a cost of doing business. Lest we forget that content providers already pay for their links to the internet, just as we pay a fee to the dedicated server company that hosts ISPreview.co.uk.

Leave a Comment
22 Responses
  1. Avatar Richard says:

    Net neutrality should be set in stone

  2. Avatar André says:

    I can’t believe he slumped so low as to go down “the children” route.
    That preamble immediately suggests bad faith.

    1. Avatar Buggerlugz says:

      Kinda gave the game away there didn’t he. “Its for the children!” line, jeez…so it’d basically benefit BT more than anyone else, what he’s suggesting by any chance?

  3. Avatar Bubbles says:

    Ahhhhh BT group…… Their twisted views and horrible policies. Unlimited that’s not unlimited, their Customer Support is awful, even if it is the uk…. Overcharging (All of their companies apart from PlusNet). I have no idea how people join them.

  4. Avatar Mutino says:

    Invest in technology maybe BT, instead of a getting that thin wedge inside net neutrality? Multicasting for live events and local caching/distribution servers inside your ISP network

  5. Avatar Spurple says:

    Thanks, but no thanks, BT.

  6. Avatar Micky says:

    Every network company in history has tried to smooth out the busy peaks. Can you imagine railways in this country if they didn’t smooth the peak with higher fares? How many fewer power stations do we have because of night time electricity reductions? Ever bought a cheaper night flight? First class mail?

    Caches help get the traffic into the core, but not to the 1000 Openreach edge sites. Multicast works to set top boxes, but not to devices.

    I expect most ISPs would welcome an opportunity to discuss this, why should the Internet be the only network that has to operate an all you can eat buffet – traffic doubled under Covid, revenue did not.

    1. Avatar A_Builder says:

      With solid state arrays getting cheaper by the minute edge caching will be and efficient use of resources quite soon.

      OK, sure you are going to pop up and tell me me much a core 100TB/s server costs…..(I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect) but IRL what % is catchable and what % is native from the wild?

      The point being the edge ones need nowhere near that throughput.

      The answer to this must be a firm no.

    2. Avatar Darren Reid says:

      No one is stopping ISPs increasing rates to cover increased costs. Or to introduce different speed limits or limits at certain times of the day. You just can’t discriminate on data types or platforms.

    3. Avatar Mike says:

      “traffic doubled” – yes, at off-peak times. Peaks did not rise that much.

      Carrying more traffic at offpeak times has zero marginal cost for BT, the network is there anyway.

    4. Avatar boggits says:

      cache’s stopped being useful when the content got personal, yes there is some gain in placing content at the edge *but* the devices need to be operated by the content delivery system and not the network operator in order for the scale to work.

      Where you have a single content source then its great but deploying N caches for N providers does scale. There have been attempts at open cache solutions (where the network operator acts as a super-cache operator) but then the individual CDNs loose their competitive technical advantage and become commodity operators where the cheapest will win.

  7. Avatar Rich says:

    So let me get this right. BT enters into commercial and marketing agreement Microsoft then moans when people are using their network for the purpose of that commercial and marketing agreement? BT creates a OTT platform and heavily promotes its content then moans that people are using their platform to view the promoted content? BT wants to slow down everyone and everything else so they don’t need to invest in network and moans its costing them money while pocketing the money that people are paying to access that network?

  8. Avatar Ian Tommins says:

    > Part of BT’s Lockdown Learning support includes zero-rating BBC Bitesize and Oak Academy’s educational websites.

    This sounds great – who doesn’t like free stuff, especially to educate kids – but it still has the usual zero-rating problems. What about the bandwidth used for video calling? Or if a teacher wants to use a resource from somewhere else – perhaps the school’s own website? Much better to provide an allowance of gigabytes that can be used as appropriate.

    Regarding the comments about market pressure on consumer prices. That’s ultimately limited by what it costs to run the networks. If BT were to make £5 per customer from media providers, then so could Virgin and Talk Talk. Everyone’s broadband prices would reduce, but customers would end up paying more for their NetFlix and Dropbox subscriptions.

    1. Avatar Spurple says:

      As far as we know, the zero rating they did was done in a charitable spirit. They’ve cashed in the goodwill. A lot of people made a lot of charitable donations too to support others who wo fell upon hard times during the lockdowns.

      All the big ISPs have subsequently raised prices far above inflation, capitalising on their reinforced status as an essential service that isn’t quite regulated as one yet.

      When I make charitable donations, I don’t go and heckle my employer to repay my outlay. That’s transparently callous.

  9. Avatar Mike says:

    Summary: BT wants more £

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Opinion: BT pretending to be acting in a good cause situation so it can deviate to hold everyone to ransom as it manipulates any agreed deviation to its own plan. Ultimately designed to restrict you unless you pay more wads of money over to them as they are in crisis due to competition and pension deficit.

    I’ve come to not trust anything from this company. The messing around they have done with broadband starting from standard ADSL. The altnets have come in overnight and showed them how you do fibre in a lot of places. BT may have the bulk people, experience, but the smaller players mostly have come from nowhere and knew how to do fibre much cheaper while BT ‘contemplated’ for excessive years stupidly believing and publicly saying the speeds of FTTC were all people needed some years ago and even at the time was laughable.

    1. Avatar André says:

      Well, big companies lack the flexibility and risk appetite of new starters.
      New starter folds, 100 people lose their jobs. BT folds, 100,000 people lose theirs. It’s understandable if they’re more cautious.
      I completely agree on your general sentiment, though, I was just trying to justify in a way why they chose to milk current assets and procrastinate big investment for so long.

    2. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      @Anon.. In fairness, one upside of a more relaxed approach to Net Neutrality may help ISPs like BT to soften, rather than increase, the monthly bills that customers pay. But in practice this seems unlikely to halt the tradition of price hikes.

    3. Avatar A_Builder says:

      In all fairness is 2010 80/20 probably was enough.

      With data growth it isn’t enough now for sure and with WFH it certainly is not enough.

      Whilst I agree that BT acted ridiculously slowly with ramping up their FTTP rollout and in ditching the original Garfield plan that would have built 1M+ FTTP connection on from the FTTC rollout into areas where FTTC wouldn’t work. Far to much time was then wasted at the Temple of the Copper God praying for a magical, physics defying, technology that would enable long copper wires to carry Gb levels of data: that was stupidity and ignorance.

      In a sense there is nothing wrong with letting small nibble companies pathfind and then follow their inovation.

      But we do have to be fair to BT ATM their are building FTTP about as fast as anyone could hope for.

  11. Avatar finaldest says:

    Ahhh, here we go. Wants to follow in Americas footsteps.

    Can we break up this useless,greedy,incompetent fat cat riddled incumbent already. It appears their begging bowl still does not have enough cash.As soon as an altnet comes to my area its good riddence to BT as i am not forking out 100k to upgrade their EO line to my house.

    Break em up Borris and all is forgiven.

  12. Avatar Robert says:

    No BT, we will not pay 5 pounds a month to use YouTube, or 10 pounds a month just to use Facebook, or an extra tenner on top of the monthly contract price that’s already inflated and already not worth for slow connections under 1Gb/s just to be able to use WhatsApp. Ain’t gonna happen. There is a reason Net Neutrality exists. All speed and access should always be the same. No slow downs, no blocked websites, no peak times or off peak times. The network is already there and you incur no extra costs. Ever. You can stop embarrassing yourself with the”think of the children” argument.

  13. Avatar Nick Roberts says:

    Roll on the Qubit and quantum data compression.

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