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Ofcom to Review UK Net Neutrality Rules Following ISP BT Moan

Sunday, March 14th, 2021 (9:39 am) - Score 10,560
ofcom uk telecoms regulator

The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has confirmed that, over the course of the next year, it will begin a review of the existing Net Neutrality rules (i.e. these ensure no serious blocking or slowing of access to legal websites or internet services by broadband ISPs and mobile operators). The move follows a call by BT for greater flexibility.

The existing regulation was designed by the EU and UK Governments to protect the open internet from abuse (here), which essentially means that providers cannot impose excessive restrictions against internet traffic and should treat almost all of it equally (i.e. they generally shouldn’t favour specific services, such as by blocking or slowing access).

NOTE: There are some exceptions to the rules, such as for general traffic management, court ordered blocks and security purposes (e.g. anti-virus/spam filtering).

For example, the rules help to stop ISPs from 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 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).

In response, the Net Neutrality rules were devised, which in the UK are applied via somewhat of a soft self-regulatory approach (i.e. it may be better to think of them as guidelines) – these are governed by the Broadband Stakeholder Group and their 2016 Open Internet Code. The code commits signatory ISPs to neutrality and transparency in traffic management on their networks (details).

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. However, the big ISPs, particularly those with strong interests in the content (e.g. TV) space, have never fully given up on their desire for more flexibility and that was underlined last week by BT’s call for greater freedom (here).

An Ofcom spokesperson said (Telegraph):

“Over the course of the next year we are planning to look at the existing framework for net neutrality to ensure we can continue to support innovation, while protecting consumers.”

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.

Admittedly some content services 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.

We can’t blame commercial ISPs like BT for trying to find new ways to reduce their costs (i.e. potentially helping to keep subscriber fees lower, but we doubt it would stop annual price hikes) or to secure more freedom to control traffic over their network, but so far the existing rules seem to have worked well to keep the balance fair and the internet open (as it was always intended to be). Ofcom will need to be very cautious as they move to re-examine this most contentious of areas.

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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.
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22 Responses
  1. JP says:

    I wonder what they are aiming to change, I wonder if part of their intentions is to stop the mobile plans being used as home broadband connections, or to shape traffic to alleviate contention on masts.

    1. Mike says:

      Even back when they tried to stop it, an uncommon 4G router and VPN was an easy bypass.

    2. JP says:

      That was then.

  2. Buggerlugz says:

    ” potentially helping to keep subscriber fees lower” really Mark? Its another BT cost saving exercise that they won’t pass that on to their customers or staff, it’ll go straight to the shareholders.

  3. Steve says:

    “ 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”

    This is mostly false. Netflix for example operate their open connect program which provides many ways for an ISP to get Netflix traffic onto their network as cheaply as possible. (https://openconnect.netflix.com/en_gb/). In many circumstances a larger ISP will only need to sacrifice a few ports on their routers. A smaller ISP will be able to connect for free via an IXP.

    While Netflix is the best I’m aware of in terms of flexibility in amount of options to get their traffic, most streaming services want to get their traffic to their customers as efficiently as possible. This reduces their own costs as well as provides a better experience for their customers.

    This is not the case for everyone, Disney+ for example use various 3rd party CDNs, but they also are interested in getting their traffic off their network into an ISPs as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

    In short, an ISP who is complaining that getting $streaming_service onto their network is expensive is likely being fast and loose with the truth.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Fair point, Netflix has changed a fair bit since I first reported on this some years ago.

  4. JmJohnson says:

    Never really understood the charges system tbh.
    When I use a VPS I’m charged for the bandwidth I use (part of the VPS bill) but it seems other content providers charge ISPs instead.
    Surely the cost of bandwidth should be part of the subscription.
    Seems to be different rules applied here.

    1. Steve says:

      Content providers don’t charge an ISP anything. The question is how does an ISP get traffic onto their network. There are broadly 3 different ways.

      – Pay another ISP – Here you go to a larger provider such as NTT or TiNET often referred as tier 1 providers or transit providers. They will give an ISP a full view of the Internet, and will pay for the amount of traffic that comes over their links.
      – Connect to an IXP – Here there is basically a large switch network that lots of network pay a small amount to connect to. From here the various networks that connect to this IXP can set up BGP sessions between each other to transfer traffic between each other.
      – Directly connect to another network – Here two networks physically run a cable (or multiple) between two routers on their networks, and run BGP across these links and transfer traffic between them. These are usually free if you transfer enough traffic.

      Where you may be getting confused is from the stories from the U.S – in particular Verizon (I think) who wanted to charge Netflix to connect to their network. This is pretty unusual, and very unlikely to happen in the UK. If BT started refusing to uplift their links to Netflix, causing congestion and a poor service, customers can just move to another ISP. The U.S very often doesn’t have multiple ISPs in an area.. Comcast and Verizon have no compete agreements in various cities.

    2. blueacid says:

      You’ve just hit the nail on the head. We customers pay our ISP, and then hosting providers pay for theirs, and the two meet in the middle, right? That’s net neutrality.

      Where this falls apart is where bigger ISPs observe that they have a thing that other people want: The eyeballs of their customers. Deutsche Telecom AG, Comcast, and (somewhat) the Liberty Global group of companies seem to be taking this angle. Their argument is broadly: “Hey, Netflix/Tiktok/Spotify/Whoever, you want your customers to get the best experience, right? Well if you pay us a load of money we’ll arrange a high capacity link from your datacentres into our network. If you don’t, well… the experience might degrade. We couldn’t have that, now could we?”. This means that the provider of the eyeball network has been paid twice – once by their customers, and again by the products their customers want.

      What happens if Netflix, Youtube, etc all decide they’ll just pay? Well, it becomes really difficult for any new provider to compete fairly. If Spotify has struck a sweetheart deal with a provider, how can Tidal or Deezer compete if the experience is far worse with their service and Spotify seems to “just work”?

      It’s not fair, nor is it really a desirable thing to have. Hence net neutrality.

    3. James™ says:

      @blueacid this already happens now. UK ISPs get these companies to pay extra already so they can have more bandwidth.

    4. Steve says:

      @James Which UK ISPs do this? I work for one of them, and we definitely do not. Others might, but I haven’t heard of that being a thing over here.

    5. MB says:

      @James this absolutely does not happen, because that is what BT wants to change, to have the ability to charge content providers for “fast lanes” or unmetered access to their customers. The problem is this entrenches the incumbents on both sides and stifles competition.

  5. James™ says:

    Are they wanting to do something similar to EE mobile and offer package like Music, Video and Gaming. Obviously these come with unlimited data on mobile but would they try offer these with true unrestricted full speed 24/7 to your home.

    This would make it harder for consumers as not every ISP will be able to offer things like this.
    Some ISPs might only get Netflix and Amazon on their video but another has like Disney and YouTube.

  6. Stoat says:

    I wonder how much of this has to do with SpaceX having parked tanks on BT’s front lawn in the form of a last-mile bypass BT can’t knock out of business or dictate upstream terms to?

    100/50 for £80/month and £325 upfront cost doesn’t sound great but having it upgrade to 300/100 and voice services at tne same figure (recent announcement) with further speed increases postulated makes FTTP look weak

    (Forget current density restrictions. This is still in rollout phase and suburban density will be catered for as time goes on)

    My ISP (Zen) have taken note of my constant issues (including constant ppp dropouts) BT’s 16-year saga of failing to address them and my having informed them I have a Starlink terminal on order. I’m sure other ISPs are noticing too

    1. Jame fanking says:

      Fttp is way cheaper than starlink ciyfibre fttp 1gb up and down is 45£ For me atm

    2. JP says:

      Stoat – Please remember to share your experiences with Starlink on the forum, I’m very interested in seeing how it performs in the first instance, I’m not interested in ordering this in the UK as I don’t need to but shooting off to North America soon and may be based in a remote spot.

      Jame – Not interested in the cost aspect, and if anybody thinks the lower prices on CF will remain long into the future I think you’ll be mistaken, when they drop fibres to serve people living on islands and in the mountains then let me know 🙂

    3. Alex says:

      Jame – It’s all well and good saying fttp is cheaper than Starlink, but when you live in Cornwall and 25mbps fttc is the best internet service that money can buy, with no fttp rollout plans, Starlink starts looking pretty attractive

    4. JP says:

      To be fair 25mbps isn’t exactly the end of the world either, and for £90 per month it possible to get 3 or 4 FTTC lines.

    5. Ivor says:

      No matter how many satellites you put into the sky, you can’t compete with FTTP on capacity and performance. Not sure BT or the other wireline ISPs need to be too worried – just as they didn’t have to worry too much about the “threat” of the mobile companies doing broadband (before they owned one), or of course the 90s’ cable companies who built their own infrastructure and BT could not have “dictated upstream terms” to.

      Even at SpaceX scale, that’s a hell of a lot of infrastructure that needs to be paid for. Remember Iridium, the system that was supposed to kill the cellular network business model by flying LEO satellites?

      Alex – Cornwall singlehandedly made up most of Openreach’s FTTP rollout at one point (and it was at about a third of all properties in Cornwall while the big programme was underway). You might not be able to get it, but many can. Places like Truro and Liskeard (for which you can include the outlying areas) are in Openreach’s current market towns rollout programme.

      JP – they are “dropping fibres to islands”, at least in the UK. If you live on the Isles of Scilly you can have all the same services as people do in mainland Cornwall, and of course the same is becoming ever more true in Scotland as well. BT doesn’t need to care about the Caribbean or the Alps.

  7. Aled says:

    I’d prefer it if they were more specific with their plans.

    I could possibly understand if time sensitive video calls, medical appointments or phone calls were prioritised ahead of YouTube and Netflix. But I could also see them trying to shake down the YouTube, Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon etc. For faster access on their networks.

    I think net neutrality works until teenagers start streaming 4K UHD videos all the time.

  8. Lee Bateman says:

    I’ve always been of the opinion that the existing zero rated schemes used by many mobile operators go against the spirit and the rule of net neutrality.

    Saying you can have as much of a service we have an agreement with but only so many GB of every other similar service is bull and I hate that we let it stand.

  9. Julian says:

    My only concern would be OTT services being locked into ISPs. For example, we should ensure we can continue to use Sky’s Now TV or BT’s BT Sport from other ISPs without penalty. So if some poor sod has Sky broadband and watches BT Sport or has BT broadband and watches Now TV they’re not dinged.

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