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Ofcom UK to Investigate ISP Net Neutrality and Traffic Management

Posted: 04th Mar, 2010 By: MarkJ
ofcomCommunications regulator Ofcom UK has confirmed plans to launch a consultation into Network Neutrality (Net Neutrality), which advocates no restrictions to Internet content, sites, or platforms by Internet access providers. Broadband ISPs that employ aggressive Traffic Management policies, which give preferential treatment to content coming from some sources but not from others, are likely to face the brunt of any scrutiny.

In some areas this Traffic Management can be beneficial, such as preventing excessive downloading by a tiny minority from impacting the services performance for everybody, but in others it has lead to legitimate concerns; such as the general restrictions being placed by some ISPs upon the BBC's iPlayer Internet video service.

The long standing debate heated up again earlier this month when César Alierta, president of the Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica (owner of O2 UK), took it to the next level and shocked many observers by announcing plans to make Internet search engines pay for using the operators network (here). A little too absurd perhaps.

The move marks a significant change for Ofcom, which up until now has kept its distance from the debate and allowed ISPs to control the flow of traffic across their networks as they please. However recent changes in EU Telecoms law have changed all that.

Ofcom Chief, Ed Richards, is quoted by ZDNet UK:

"The deployment of traffic management techniques and policies is now happening in scale... and last year's adoption of the EU Framework moves us firmly into new territory. It gives regulators an extensive array of powers and a clear responsibility to address some of the emerging issues around traffic management.

Even if consumers have access to transparent information, they need to understand how traffic management practices will affect their day-to-day experience of a service and be able to assess which product best meets their needs. This may require substantial effort and time, particularly if the information provided about traffic management practices is fairly technical.

Studies have shown that consumers can find it difficult to take into account fully different aspects of products when making a decision. What is needed is for the industry to embrace the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new requirements for transparency and explanation."

The regulator warns that the mixed UK model is different from most because of its highly competitive unbundled ( LLU ) market. It claims that this makes the Net Neutrality debate less significant here than in countries such as the USA, where competition is presumably less aggressive.

Net Neutrality is certainly nothing new for UK ISPs and in fact many already adopt Traffic Management systems that throttle bandwidth to specific services (e.g. P2P, BBC iPlayer, Online Gaming etc.). According to Richards, the spring 2010 consultation will look at how its existing powers could be adapted to prevent Traffic Management methods from being used anti-competitively.
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