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By: MarkJ - 24 November, 2011 (12:32 PM)
uk network cableOfcom UK Net NeutralityThe communications regulator, Ofcom UK, has today released new guidelines to help tackle concerns over Net Neutrality (the principal of treating all internet traffic as equal) and related Traffic Management systems by pushing consumer broadband ISPs to be more open and transparent with any service restrictions that might be imposed.

As expected, Ofcom's approach is a soft one that fundamentally relies upon there being "effective competition" between ISPs, which it perceives to be a deterrent against providers imposing overly aggressive service restrictions. The assumption is that customers affected by excessive service restrictions could simply switch ISP, which is often easier said than done (Ofcom are developing new rules that should make ISP switching easier).

The regulators position has been designed to match that of both the UK government (here) and the European Commission (here), which simply call for the preservation of an "open" internet by requiring ISPs to be "transparent" with any restrictions they impose and to ensure that consumers retain access to all "legal content [and] service[s]".
Ofcom - ISPs Must Provide the Following (at point of sale)

* Average speed information that indicates the level of service consumers can expect to receive;

* Information about the impact of any traffic management that is used on specific types of services, such as reduced download speeds during peak times for peer-to-peer software; and

* Information on any specific services that are blocked, resulting in consumers being unable to run the services and applications of their choice.
The regulator has also called upon ISPs to ensure that any information or terms that they do provide be "clear". The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) are already piloting this (here) as part of a self-regulatory initiative, although their solution still needs some polish to improve its detail, standards and clarity. Work is on-going.

Ofcom's CEO, Ed Richards, said:

"The internet plays an important role in the lives of citizens, consumers and industry. We now expect and depend on access to the content and services it has to offer.

How ISPs control access to the internet affects us all and it is important that we are able to understand how our access might be restricted.

Ofcom is now looking to the ISPs to ensure that transparent information is available, and will look to intervene if it does not see improvements."

Some critics will surely argue that Ofcom hasn't gone far enough, although the introduction of a voluntary policy is always the first step in tackling any perceived problems. Indeed the regulator quite clearly warns that it does not want to see ISPs being too aggressive with their traffic management and points to the specific example of "leaving insufficient network capacity for some services". This, they state, could result in Ofcom being forced to "impose" a "minimum quality of service" upon internet providers.

Ofcom also claims to be mindful of the European Parliament (EP), which recently adopted a significantly stronger resolution that called for EU telecoms rules to be properly "enforced" in order to help keep the internet "open and neutral" (here). The European Commission (EC) may or may not agree to this, depending upon the outcome of a forthcoming report from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). This is expected to reveal whether or not any operators have abused their positions (some certainly have but most, we think, have not).

So far the biggest potential for harm, which could occur if ISPs started favouring content sources based on who pays them the most money, has yet to become a major issue. ISPs also need space for the development of new models, such as deals to support the new generation of IPTV services (film content etc.), although Ofcom correctly warns that this should not be allowed to result in the unfair discrimination of traffic from rival services.
Ofcom's Approach to UK ISP Net Neutrality
UPDATE 3:46pm

The ISPA has just issued their reaction.

Nicholas Lansman, ISPA Secretary General, said:

"ISPs in the UK are committed to delivering their customers with the best possible Internet access and ISPA welcomes that Ofcom confirmed today that it was satisfied with the provision of best-efforts access in the UK. The Internet delivers many benefits to consumers and businesses and ISPs deal with growing demand by investing in new capacity and by applying traffic management tools.

We further welcome that Ofcom recognised that traffic-management tools and managed services can offer clear benefits to consumers, e.g. through the provision of high quality IP-TV or voice services. The key to this is that the UK has a competitive and transparent broadband market and ISPA is committed to ensure that this will continue to be the case. Like Ofcom, we recognise that transparency plays an important role and we welcome that Ofcom regards the self-regulatory system that is currently in development as a good foundation. We note that Ofcom would like to see a more creative approach to the delivery of information in a clear and understandable manner and feel that the self-regulatory process will be able to meet this challenge."

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