How the net-neutrality debate crossed the pond

The net-neutrality debate has finally hit the UK. It is well worth having, but advocates need to pick the right fight
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Net neutrality is, according to Virgin Media's new chief executive, a "load of bollocks".

In an interview with the Royal Television Society's Television magazine, Neil Berkett warned that content providers like the BBC will soon have to pay internet service providers (ISPs) if they want to keep their content out of the slow lane. The resultant outcry caused Virgin to hurriedly deny he meant any such thing.

If you hadn't noticed by now, the net-neutrality debate has finally hit the UK. Not long ago, commentators were calling it a US problem, a function of the extremely limited choice of providers faced by consumers over the pond. But here it is, and it's not going away anytime soon.

What is important to remember about the net-neutrality debate is that it is, in fact, two separate debates. One covers the concept of ISPs offering tiered levels of service to their users, while the other — enthusiastically waded into by Berkett — relates to the idea of ISPs charging content providers for the privilege of not having their content throttled.

Those arguing for net neutrality need to pick their fight carefully, because one of those two debates — the one around tiered levels of service — is already a done deal. Traffic-shaping and prioritisation are necessary for making services like VoIP work, and they are essential for any ISP that wants to sell assured service levels to, for example, business customers. They are also concepts with which UK consumers will soon have to familiarise themselves.

Two developments in the UK broadband market have led to this situation. One is the rise of online video, particularly the BBC's iPlayer service, whose share of UK internet traffic has rocketed in recent months. The other is the race to the bottom in broadband pricing, spurred on by the so-called "free and unlimited broadband" promotions put out by ISPs like Carphone Warehouse and Orange.

Broadband only became so cheap because the ISPs promoting such deals were confident that their customers would not use enough bandwidth to expose the service-quality issues that such deals inevitably entail. We and they now know this not to be the case. Services like iPlayer use a vast amount of bandwidth and the rapid rise in the usage of such services means that a good quality of service will only follow further infrastructural investment.

Based on current home broadband pricing, it is not surprising that the ISPs are loath to invest — it would turn profit into loss. Therefore, logic dictates that prices must rise in the consumer sector (business users will be largely shielded from this, as they already pay for assured service levels). Again, it is not hard to see why an ISP would hesitate to do this, because the current market is still locked into the notion of the cheapest broadband package being the most attractive. Raising prices or introducing tiered services to consumers now is a big risk.

So, with no mainstream ISP wanting to bite the bullet yet, the next port of call is companies like the BBC — the only source of the problem that ISPs can blame, other than themselves. There are several reasons why this route should not be taken. Firstly, the BBC and other content providers already pay for bandwidth on their end of the "pipe". Demanding a slice of the pie for the more popular services streamed over ISPs' networks stinks of opportunism and greed — like the Highways Agency trying to get a cut of the takings from a lucrative haulage company.

It would also be extremely difficult for ISPs to explain to their users why they cannot get a specific service, such as iPlayer, at a decent quality, but can get an acceptable stream from a more pliant content provider. In the UK we don't have a tight duopoly or monopoly on internet access, so customers would just migrate to rival ISPs.

Charging content providers for "protection" would also fundamentally undermine the equality of the internet. If the most reliable service levels simply become those that are attached to the wealthiest content providers, the nature of the internet as a breeding ground for innovative and niche services and viewpoints will go out the window.

The net-neutrality debate is not "bollocks". But, much as the consumer may not like it, he or she will have to pay more. While spurious reports of the internet "falling over" are very wide of the mark, the fact is that broadband prices will have to rise, and probably in tiered levels of service.

In other words, it should cost you more to have assured levels of quality for online video or VoIP services. It should not cost you or the BBC more to use a specific service such as iPlayer, and any ISP that suggests otherwise deserves to be the target of contempt and fleeing customers.

After all, it is the ISPs themselves who created the current situation.

Editorial standards