Ofcom kicks off UK net neutrality debate

The regulator does not think blanket restrictions on ISP traffic management are necessary, but it has asked for opinions nonetheless

Ofcom has launched its consultation into net neutrality, although it does not think blanket restrictions should be imposed on all forms of traffic management.

The regulator pre-announced the consultation in March, saying it wanted to see if more could be done to keep the internet open. The consultation document was published on Thursday along with a list of questions, with the window for responses scheduled to close on 9 September. Anyone can respond, from ISPs to businesses and consumers.

'Net neutrality' is, in its purest form, the belief that no traffic management should be imposed on data going over the internet, leaving all data treated equally and thereby prohibiting anti-competitive practices.

The issue covers not only the connections of users, but also the potential for ISPs to charge content providers to carry their traffic at full quality. Net neutrality has traditionally been a more contentious subject in the US, where there is less competition between ISPs, than in Europe. The European Commission is due to launch its own net neutrality consultation sometime this summer.

Ways in which traffic management is currently imposed in the UK includes the throttling of fixed and mobile bandwidth during peak usage times, and the technically enforced prohibition on some mobile networks of services that rival those of the operator, such as Skype. However, traffic management has become increasingly attractive to both fixed and mobile operators, as the amount of video and other heavy traffic on the web increases dramatically.

In its document, Ofcom noted that ISPs are making greater use of traffic management techniques to "allow them to handle traffic more efficiently, to prioritise traffic by type, to charge for guaranteed bandwidth or to block or degrade the quality of certain content". It said transparency was key to making traffic management fair on users.

"While traffic management potentially offers some benefits to consumers, there are also concerns that firms could use traffic management anti-competitively," the regulator said. "The increasing use of traffic management also raises questions about consumers' awareness and understanding of the impact that traffic management has on their broadband service."

Ofcom has not actually receive any formal complaints from industry about traffic management "that require investigation", although it said it is "aware of areas of disagreement between network providers and ISPs and some content, applications and service providers".

According to Ofcom, "there is insufficient evidence at present to justify the setting of blanket restrictions on all forms of traffic management". However, the regulator said in its statement that — if the use of existing competition laws were to fail — it has the power under the EU's revised telecoms framework to impose "more prescriptive policy options", such as a minimum quality of service.

Responding to Ofcom's consultation, the ISP Eclipse Internet said it was "imperative that ISPs provide their customers with greater visibility of web traffic to meet their ever-growing network demands".

"These days it's vital that businesses receive the best possible technical support from their selected provider to know why the nature of their business dramatically increases the complexity of the web traffic," Eclipse director Clodagh Murphy said in a statement on Friday. "ISPs also need to be entirely open and honest to customers about throttling policies from the point of sale. The phrase 'unlimited broadband' is thrown around too easily by too many companies, and this is so often not the case."