ISPs must be clearer with broadband customers about how they restrict traffic, Ofcom has said, warning it may force them to do so if they do not improve.
Ofcom has said ISPs must be clearer with their customers over traffic-management policies. Photo credit: Jon Yeomans
In addition, customers should be told exactly what average speed they should expect to get when they sign a contract, the telecoms regulator said as it released a statement on net neutrality on Thursday.
"In general, [traffic management] is beneficial, and is used for example to protect safety-critical traffic such as calls to the emergency services. But it can cause concern, if for example it is used by ISPs to target competing services, in a manner which is not visible to consumers," the regulator said in a statement.
Fixed and mobile broadband providers typically have traffic management policies in place, but not all of their customers may be aware of them. Traffic management is typically used to ease congestion at busy times on the network: for instance, video services may be prioritised over mail at times of day when more people are watching, and peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic is often allowed less bandwidth at certain times.
Ofcom acknowledged that ISPs do provide some information about how they manage traffic. It noted that in March a group of providers — BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone and Three — signed a voluntary code of practice agreeing to be clear about the policies on their networks.
However, the watchdog said on Thursday the information provided "does not go far enough and needs to be made clearer and easier to understand". It said the Key Facts Indicator (KFI) table of traffic management information produced by those following the voluntary code is only useful to "technically savvy" consumers, for example.
"If improvements are not made, Ofcom may use its powers to introduce a minimum level of consumer information under the revised European framework," the regulator said.
European authorities are looking into different approaches to traffic management as they relate to net neutrality, which aims to make sure that ISPs do not unfairly block users from accessing the application or service of their choice. The European Commission is gathering facts on the use of traffic management across the region, covering abuses such as operators blocking VoIP providers that compete with their own services.
The Communications Consumer Panel, an independent body that advises Ofcom, welcomed the regulator's move. "It's a positive move to empower consumers, and we support the move to consider using regulatory powers to compel internet service providers (ISPs) if they fail to provide a minimum level of consumer information," Bob Warner, chair of the panel, said in a statement.
To be more transparent, Ofcom suggests ISPs should inform customers about the effect of any traffic management policies, such as reduced download speeds for P2P software at peak times, and tell them if particular services are blocked. They should also make the average expected speed clear to the consumer at the point of sale.
"Terms used by ISPs to describe their services should also be clear," the regulator said. "In particular, a consumer paying for 'internet access' should expect this to include the full range of services available over the open internet. ISPs should not use the term 'internet access' to refer to a service that blocks lawfully available internet services."
Ofcom said it could use its powers to impose "minimum quality-of-service levels" on ISPs, if it believes innovation is being stifled by the throttling of traffic, though it expects in general to be able to "rely on the operation of market forces to address this issue".
As part of its push, the regulator is urging ISPs to work with the Broadband Stakeholder Group and consumer bodies to develop their self-regulatory guidelines further. The ISPA, which represents broadband providers, welcomed that approach.
"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," a spokesman for ISPA said.
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