BT says no to traffic shaping

Telco will refrain from degrading other providers' services, claims one of the key executives behind BT's next-generation network

BT will not need to degrade certain types of traffic on its network because enough bandwidth will be created, according to one of the key executives behind the telco's next-generation network.

Matt Beal, BT Wholesale's chief technical officer, said on Thursday that the rollout of the 21st Century Network (21CN) — BT's next-generation network — would "put enough [bandwidth] volume out there… so we don't have to [traffic shape]".

Traffic shaping is a means of prioritising certain types of data over others to avoid network congestion. The practice is at the heart of the debate over so-called "network neutrality", as some see it as a way to protect time-sensitive applications such as VoIP, while others see it as a way for operators to promote their own services over those of rivals.

It recently emerged that the Canadian carrier, Rogers, has been traffic shaping for some time to the detriment of users who, for example, transmit encrypted data. On Thursday, Beal called such practices "quite Big Brother-ish" and maintained that 21CN, which is due for completion by 2011, had the "capacity and scalability" to make that sort of traffic shaping unnecessary.

"It is up to us at the core of the network to make sure there is enough bandwidth for [our services and those of our competitors]," said Beal, who claimed that trials of high-definition TV — the kind of bandwidth-intensive application that some fear could result in network congestion — over 21CN had been successful.

Another solution that some have claimed could ease network congestion is fibre to the premises, known generically as FTTx, but Beal appeared to dismiss the idea of that becoming a widespread reality any time soon. While he said that "proof-of-concept" FTTx trials had been "exceedingly promising", he claimed that the cost of rolling out 21CN made a fibre rollout increasingly unlikely. "It is not something I would envisage us changing our policy on in the next couple of years," Beal said, while  adding that FTTx in the UK was purely a market issue, not a "technical or service or BT issue".

Beal also claimed that operators currently rolling out FTTx, such as KPN in the Netherlands, were doing so because they did not have the same kind of anti-monopolistic restrictions placed on them in their countries as BT has in the UK. In 2005 Ofcom forced BT to open up access to its exchanges to other providers — a practice known as unbundling. Beal suggested that a rollout of FTTx would mean BT would be obliged to let rival operators share in that connectivity, which was not much of a motivation. He also criticised some European operators who are rolling out fibre, suggesting that because they were concentrating on metropolitan areas they were "literally creating a digital divide".

The CTO also conceded that the headline broadband speeds that 21CN was supposed to bring — 24Mbps — were unlikely to ever be achieved "unless you are… in the exchange". He estimated that the real speeds customers were likely to achieve would be approximately 8-12Mbps.

Asked about BT's attitude to the upcoming spectrum auctions, which could be used for the long-range radio technology WiMax, Beal said he did not care who owned the frequencies. "BT can't afford to think like the incumbent," he said, adding that an "aggressive" auction, such as that which led operators to spend fortunes on 3G spectrum earlier this decade, might make it more expedient for BT to let someone else win the spectrum, then lease it from them.