Telecoms business users call for net neutrality

Allowing ISPs to prioritise specific web services over others depending on how much their providers are willing to pay would be bad for businesses, the International Telecommunications User Group has warned

Enterprise and public-sector internet users require network neutrality to keep their business processes running consistently, the executive vice president of the International Telecommunications User Group has warned.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on net neutrality in the UK, the telecoms business user group's Nick White argued against the idea of internet service providers (ISPs) charging web companies to prioritise their traffic over that of rival web companies. He said such an abandonment of net neutrality principles will make it more difficult for firms and organisations to work with partners within the UK and across international borders.

"Enterprise users of ICT... want efficient business processes that work consistently whatever they do," International Telecommunications User Group's (INTUG) White said on Tuesday. "It would be unacceptable to find that because one of your business partners is using a different internet service provider, you cannot continue your business operations.

"This is an issue of: 'Can businesses and public sector organisations continue when individual components of the supply chain change their choice of ICT providers?' It's pretty critical," he added.

White was speaking at an event attended by regulators, parliamentarians and industry representatives, all of whom are currently debating whether new regulation is needed to protect net neutrality.

In its most extreme definition, net neutrality is the principle of all bits being equal and opposes the idea of any management techniques being applied to internet traffic. Realistically, though, management techniques are already frequently applied. For example, ISPs may prioritise VoIP traffic, which requires low latency, over email traffic, which does not.

The issues being discussed on Tuesday largely related to two scenarios: traffic management being applied to entire classes of traffic, such as IPTV, and discrimination being applied to specific services within a class, such as charging the BBC to give iPlayer a better quality of service than rivals. Ofcom recently closed a public consultation on whether it should regulate such matters, and the European Commission is about to close a similar consultation.

"It is only going to be acceptable to differentiate if people know what is going on and it doesn't destroy the competitive market," White said. "[Traffic management policies] have to be open to everybody so they can be monitored independently."

White pointed out that whatever decisions are taken within the UK, "telecoms is not an island. Even for the SMEs [small to medium-enterprises] that share the same challenge that large enterprises do, you need consistency of approach across national boundaries".

"Certainly within the EU we need a consistent application of net neutrality rules," White said. "Our plea is to make sure the definition is understood and consistently applied."

TalkTalk regulatory affairs chief Andrew Heaney argued that regulators should not stop content providers and ISPs from striking deals to ensure high quality of service for specific services.

"This is a normal supply-customer relationship," Heaney said. "It would be perfectly normal to offer differentiated services to different customers at different prices. A one-size-fits-all approach would be breaking the market economy.

"Look at YouTube and the BBC — we should have the freedom to [make a deal with each]," he said. "If YouTube doesn't like the deal, they can walk."

Speaking to ZDNet UK after his panel discussion, Heaney hedged TalkTalk's bets. "We might not...

...do managed services [for web companies]; we might," he said. "We might decide the BBC's content is so valuable that we offer them a lower managed services price than we offer other providers. We should have the freedom to strike our own deals."

With regards to why TalkTalk does not already discriminate between web content providers according to how much they are willing to pay, Heaney said some providers "might turn round and say they're not paying and might withdraw their service, and our customers might not like it and might leave us".

Heaney considered how the system might work with YouView, the web-connected on-demand TV platform that includes both TalkTalk and the BBC as consortium members. "To make sure the customer gets a good experience, they will get a better service with a managed service than a best-effort service. They might pay for it. We may say to them, 'Here's a great TV service, but if you want it looking good, whatever, three quid extra per month'," he said.

Heaney acknowledged that this approach might stop new web companies springing up, as they would be unable to pay to match rivals' quality of service. "They can either go down the best-efforts pipe or knock on our door," Heaney said. "If they want to buy something from us and don't want to pay for it, I don't see why we should [give it to them]."

When it was pointed out that start-ups do not have to pay for such quality of service now, Heaney responded: "The world changes."

Simon Milner, Heaney's counterpart at BT, was also open to the idea of charging content providers for higher quality of service. "We don't do it at the moment, but we absolutely could see situations where some content or application providers might want to pay BT for a quality of sevrice above best efforts," he said.

"That's the kind of thing we'd have to explain in our traffic-management policies and if somebody decided they don't want to have that kind of service, they'd be free to go elsewhere. We are certainly open to offers on that basis and we think, in a competitive market, that should be free to develop," Milner said.

Alissa Cooper, the chief computer scientist for the US Center for Democracy and Technology, also spoke at the eForum. "The virtue of [the internet's] application agnosticism is that innovators can know with some degree of certainty how their applications are going to perform on the network," she said. "That particular characteristic has been really crucial to the amazing landscape of internet applications and services that we all enjoy today."

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