Ofcom consults on net neutrality

Internet traffic management comes under official scrutiny, as regulator probes impact on competition.

internet

Ofcom, the communications industry regulator, is set to investigate internet services' traffic management policies.

The move comes amid growing concerns that some internet service providers (ISPs) are using traffic management policies as a cloak for anti-competitive practices.

Traffic management is meant to allow networks to improve services and handle traffic more efficiently, by assigning different priorities to different types of data. However, Ofcom believes that some ISPs might be abusing the system, in order to block or degrade internet traffic from rival services.

The regulator has launched a consultation, to discuss how it might use its powers to police ISPs' traffic management policies, and ensure that they are not anti-competitive. Ofcom also wants to gauge public awareness of ISPs' traffic management rules, to understand whether these are sufficiently transparent.

According to Ofcom, EU rules mean that it has a duty to "address the emerging issues around traffic management," said Ed Richards, its chief executive. "At the heart of this discussion is how to ensure that traffic management practices are transparent and how to ensure that traffic management is not used for anti-competitive discrimination."

The idea of discriminating either in favour, or against, certain types of internet traffic goes against the idea of net neutrality. Net neutrality is based on the belief that all types of traffic should have a level playing field on the net.

The growth of both legitimate high-bandwidth services, such as YouTube or the BBC's iPlayer, and illegal file-sharing and torrent sites, has caused problems for ISPs.

Service providers are worried that a small number of subscribers, as well as a small number of online services, are using a disproportionate amount of bandwidth. This, in turn, is affecting the online experience of average users.

Content providers and companies offering services over internet, for their part, worry that some ISPs might use traffic shaping and traffic management to discriminate in favour of their own tied or "walled garden" services, and against independent services or those from rival ISPs.

"Net neutrality is a complex issue with different concepts used in different countries," said a spokesman for BT.

"BT's view is that internet-based content should be carried like all other internet traffic. But service providers should also be free to strike commercial deals should content owners want a higher quality of service delivery."

"Traffic management is a necessary evil given the price competiveness in the market, with too many ISPs promising too much for too little," said Peter Gradwell, founder of business ISP Gradwell.com. "But from a VoIP provider perspective it's very important that providers are not anti-competitive and don't block traffic. I'd welcome Ofcom's consultation on this as it would be good to clear the air."

Ofcom's announcement comes in the week that the US Federal Communications Commission started its hearings on net neutrality.

Ofcom's initial discussion paper can be found here and the consultation runs until 9 September.

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