BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone and 3 have all promised to be clear to their customers about how they manage their broadband traffic.
The major fixed and mobile internet service providers (ISPs) said on Monday that they have signed up to a voluntary code of practice formulated by them and the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), an industry body. The code (PDF) obliges the companies to tell their customers what traffic management takes place, why it takes place and what effect it has on the customer's broadband experience.
"This commitment to provide clear and comparable information in a common format is very important," BSG chief Antony Walker said in a statement. "It will not only help to ensure consumers are better informed about the services they buy and use, but will also provide a clearer picture for policy makers of the way in which traffic management is actually used in the UK market."
The commitment will not only help to ensure consumers are better informed about their services, but will also provide a clearer picture for policy makers of the way in which traffic management is actually used in the UK market. – Antony Walker, Broadband Stakeholder Group
The companies will have to make the information clear and verifiable. They will also have to publish a Key Facts Indicator (KFI) table in a common format that makes it easy for people to compare providers.
According to the BSG, the code will be piloted this year, with a review following in 2012 to "fine-tune the approach".
Not all customers are aware of the traffic-managment policies used by their broadband providers, and the code of practice is designed to address this. Traffic management is usually applied to broadband networks to ensure that services run properly at times of congestion.
Video services, for example, are much more time-sensitive than email, so will likely be prioritised over email at peak times. It is also very common to see peer-to-peer (P2P) services given less bandwidth during busy periods.
One notable company that did not sign up to the code is Everything Everywhere, which sells services under the T-Mobile and Orange mobile operator brands. Its absence explains why the BSG said the agreement covered 90 percent of all fixed-line broadband customers in the UK, but only 60 percent of all mobile broadband customers.
"Everything Everywhere is supportive of this initiative and the principle of transparency," a spokesperson for the company told ZDNet UK on Monday. "We are working closely with the BSG on discussions around the code of practice and have not ruled out a formal endorsement in due course, following further development of the format."
According to Walker, the BSG is "very pleased" with the number of companies that signed up at the code's launch, and hopes that more large companies will sign up through the rest of the year.
"There are enough players [at launch] to give this some momentum," he told ZDNet UK.
Walker noted that the code will make it clear to customers whether their ISP or operator has struck any deals with content providers, to prioritise those providers' services over those of rivals. This is the sort of deal that net-neutrality advocates fear will break up the egalitarianism of the internet and, by Walker's definition, the type of arrangement that would qualify as a "managed service".
"To deliver a managed service, if you required the use of traffic management it would come up through the KFI," Walker said. "Through the KFI, a picture will emerge as to whether there are managed service arrangements coming through in the UK market."
Walker also said the BSG's new code of practice provided a distinct set of rules from those laid out in the ISP Association's (ISPA) Best Current Practice document, which mandates that fixed-line providers "must not deliberately filter internet traffic unless it makes available to its customers and users in a clear manner the nature of the filtering that takes place".
"[The BSG code of practice] is around transparency and the way in which practices and policies related to traffic management are communicated both to the consumer and the wider community of interested stakeholders and policymakers," Walker said. "The ISPA document is more about traffic management policies themselves."