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ISPs prepare net-neutrality code of conduct

BT, Sky and other major ISPs will agree next week to a code of practice that calls for them to be transparent about the traffic-management policies they apply to their customers' broadband
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Major ISPs are set to come clean about their traffic management policies, according to a broadband public-private body.

The forum for the ISP industry and government, Broadband Stakeholder Group, met on Monday with BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, Sky and others to discuss the issue of net neutrality, which calls for providers to treat all traffic alike.

"The Broadband Stakeholder Group has been working with ISPs to develop a voluntary code of practice on traffic management transparency," the group told ZDNet UK on Wednesday. "We hope to launch this code of practice next week."

Virgin Media has no current plans to prioritise particular types of content on the basis of who publishes or owns it.
– Virgin Media

Net neutrality is mainly concerned — in the UK, at least — with many ISPs' desire to charge content providers such as the BBC for the prioritisation of their services over those of rivals.

In theory, such prioritisation could — and depending on the customer's available bandwidth — see the degradation of content that does not come from the provider that paid. However, some ISPs see prioritisation as a way to manage high-volume content, particularly video, as well as a way to make more money.

Voluntary code

The only major ISP willing to speak on the record about the issue was Virgin Media. On Wednesday, the company said that "as more time sensitive applications come online, it's important to debate the best ways to manage traffic to ensure a great online experience, but we have no current plans to prioritise particular types of content on the basis of who publishes or owns it".

However, ZDNet UK understands that the big ISPs will sign up to the voluntary code of practice. When it arrives, the code will be the only industry-wide commitment by ISPs to keep their broadband users informed about the policies, which may affect their browsing experience.

No other industry commitment is expected, as Ofcom has decided to leave the net-neutrality situation alone for now; the regulator has said it will only step in when a demonstrable problem arises.

Prioritising content

TalkTalk and BT have clearly expressed their desire to charge providers — for example, the BBC or YouTube — for the prioritisation of their content over rivals' content. The impact of such a move on the end-user experience becomes less marked as available bandwidth increases, but for many net-neutrality advocates such actions would compromise the egalitarian nature of the internet.

The ISPs expected to announce their adoption of the voluntary code of practice next week are fixed-line broadband providers, but mobile operators such as O2 also want to create 'data toll roads'.

However, there is no publicly known example of any fixed or mobile broadband provider actually succeeding in getting a content provider to agree to a payment scheme, despite the lack of pro-net-neutrality legislation.

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