UK regulators 'relaxed' on net neutrality

Ofcom and the Department for Trade and Industry argue against net neutrality legislation as the debate reaches Westminster

There is currently no need to introduce net neutrality legislation in the UK, according to both Ofcom and the DTI.

Speaking at a Westminster e-Forum on the topic on Tuesday, Ofcom's director of policy development, Dougal Scott, told delegates that "the European regulatory framework allows us to deal with any issues that may arise".

The net neutrality debate has been particularly heated in the United States — where there is much less competition between ISPs than in the UK — and centres on the idea of ISPs being able to charge content providers, such as Google or Amazon, for prioritising their content over that of other providers.

Net neutrality advocates, including web pioneers like Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, insist that this could corrupt the egalitarian nature of the internet. Opponents of net neutrality argue that some kind of discrimination is necessary if the internet is going to survive the next stages of its evolution, and a competitive marketplace should ensure that customers get what they want.

"There is a very rapid increase of traffic on the internet," said Scott on Tuesday, pointing to a "change in the nature of applications that people are using on the internet", particularly time-sensitive applications like voice over IP. He went on to characterise the "all bits are equal" advocates as the "most extreme" fringe of the net neutrality lobby, and insisted that there were "real advantages to consumers in treating certain types of applications differently to others".

Scott also said it would not be wrong for an ISP to approach an application provider offering to guarantee service quality for a fee — unless that ISP had significant market power, in which case Ofcom could weigh in on the grounds of anti-competitive behaviour.

He also suggested that smaller ISPs without significant market power could theoretically be stopped from degrading or blocking services by rules which say that operators must offer end-to-end connectivity.

The real issue, said Scott, was not the "traffic shaping" policies of ISPs, but the way in which those were communicated to the public. "If you use BitTorrent, how do you know which ISP to go to?" he asked, adding that there "needs to be greater clarity to the consumer on ISPs' traffic-shaping policies".

Claire Hobson, head of UK telecommunications policy for the Department of Trade and Industry, also said the internet was already "non-neutral". "As long as users understand what they are getting, and can switch broadband provider easily, there should not be a problem," she said, describing the DTI as "quite relaxed at the moment" on the issue.

Others, such as Cable & Wireless' director of regulatory affairs, Andy May, pointed to the rise of online video as a major reason for the introduction of discrimination. May even claimed that "ISPs will go out of business unless they can get some return on the investment they will need to make in backhaul" in order to support such high-bandwidth services.

But David Harrington, head of regulatory affairs for the Communications Management Association, disagreed. "Net neutrality has relatively little to do with backhaul on the core network," he said. "It has everything to do with the lack of capacity and competitiveness in the access network."

Harrington suggested an alternative solution to the bandwidth problem: fibre to the home (FTTH). Joking that "Ofcom is not concerned about whether the UK will move off its low-fibre diet and unblock that last mile", he criticised the regulator's "laissez-faire" attitude towards fibre to the home — which would replace the copper last-mile infrastructure and bring huge increases in bandwidth — and called for a "full-blooded debate" on the subject.

Speaking to ZDNet UK after the event, Harrington claimed that it was "in telcos' own interests not to provide maximised bandwidth until they themselves are in a position to exploit it for themselves", by introducing their own video or other value-added services.

"By the time we understand that FTTH is necessary, it will take five years for us to [catch up with Europe]," he warned. "Let's do something about it."