Ofcom to investigate UK net neutrality

The telecoms regulator will launch a consultation in the spring to find out if ISPs' traffic management policies are being fairly applied

Ofcom is to launch a consultation into network neutrality later this spring, the UK telecoms regulator has announced.

Traffic management techniques and policies have become widely implemented across Europe, Ofcom chief Ed Richards said on Wednesday at the Cable Congress conference in Brussels. That trend, coupled with recent EU legislation, means that national regulators must examine the net neutrality issue and decide whether more needed to be done to keep the internet "open," he said.

"The deployment of traffic management techniques and policies is now happening in scale... and last year's adoption of the EU Framework moves us firmly into new territory. It gives regulators an extensive array of powers and a clear responsibility to address some of the emerging issues around traffic management," Richards said at the conference, according to an Ofcom statement.

Net neutrality is a principle that calls on ISPs to avoid using traffic management and other techniques to discriminate against particular content, sites and types of internet-based communications. Traffic management involves fixed and mobile ISPs using a variety of techniques to 'shape' the traffic over their networks. This can help the ISPs prevent heavy bandwidth users degrading the web surfing experience of other people at peak times.

In the UK, Virgin Media, BT and TalkTalk often reduce the speeds offered to heavy users and P2P traffic in peak periods, while 3 does the same with P2P users on its mobile broadband network at certain times of the day.

However, similar techniques can also be used to block or degrade the performance of specific types of application. Some mobile operators have been known to block VoIP traffic over their networks, for example.

According to Richards, the consultation will look into how Ofcom could use its existing powers to prevent traffic management techniques being used anti-competitively. It will also examine how the regulator could use new powers gained in last year's Telecoms Reform Package and "whether [both old and new powers] are sufficient to maintain the open character of the internet to which the legislators attached so much weight".

The Telecoms Reform Package gave regulators the responsibility to "ensure that information on traffic management policies is made transparently available to consumers", Richards noted.

The telecoms regulators stressed that the European case differs from that in the US, because European countries tend to have more competition in their telecoms markets.

"In the US, limited competition, both at the network and the ISP level, means that the potential for consumer detriment through traffic management is greater," Richards said. "In Europe, as recent research for the FCC indicates, the mixed model — investment in infrastructure complemented by unbundling of the local loop — has delivered a more competitive market structure from the exchange back into the network."

Richards noted that the case for a highly interventionist net neutrality policy was harder to justify in highly competitive markets, and it was "even harder to justify blanket net neutrality rules when we consider the risks they could pose to potential collaborative and desirable investment in networks".

"Even if consumers have access to transparent information, they need to understand how traffic management practices will affect their day-to-day experience of a service and be able to assess which product best meets their needs," Richards said. "This may require substantial effort and time, particularly if the information provided about traffic management practices is fairly technical."

"Studies have shown that consumers can find it difficult to take into account fully different aspects of products when making a decision. What is needed is for the industry to embrace the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new requirements for transparency and explanation," he added.


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