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Net neutrality: Controlling the traffic

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:55 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

They may not have known it, but the thousands queueing for the iPhone 4 this morning were a symptom of an issue that's only now rearing its head in the UK - net neutrality. As more and more people use smartphones to consume vast amounts of data, the cries of pain from the network operators, fixed and mobile, are going to get louder. What's more they are beginning to ask whether the media firms which pump their products down the pipes shouldn't be paying for the privilege.

iPhone 4That's the theme of a discussion document unveiled by Ofcom's Ed Richards this morning. I had arrived at the briefing puzzled as to how to sum up net neutrality in a sentence. Someone suggested "all data is created equal" but Mr Richards admitted it was a term that meant different things to different people. He said he preferred to talk about the practice of internet traffic management - and mentioned O2's move to end unlimited data plans for the new iPhone as an example.

Ofcom defines traffic management as "a technique used by network operators and internet service providers (ISPs) to stem or accelerate the flow of traffic over the web." The regulator outlined a spectrum of techniques, from speed limits only imposed during periods of high congestion, through the throttling back of some types of traffic, all the way to blocking rival content such as a competitor's online television service.

The network operators are responding to an explosion in the use of online services which chew up a lot of data - an example being the record amounts of video-streaming during the England World Cup match on Wednesday.

The mobile operators in particular seem to have been caught unaware by this phenomenon - Ofcom's document includes this interesting graph showing mobile data volumes increasing by a factor of 23 during a period when revenues doubled.

Growth in mobile data volumes and revenues

So the operators need to spend money improving their infrastructure, and are concerned that they will not earn the revenues to pay for that. In both the fixed and mobile world the networks are already trying to control consumer behaviour and they are now turning to the content owners responsible for much of the traffic.

This has been a very controversial issue in the United States, where Ofcom's equivalent, the FCC, has taken a robust stance, backing the principle of net neutrality and making it clear it opposes the practice of discriminating between different forms of internet traffic. That stance has been applauded by the likes of Google, and attacked by telecoms perators who want the freedom to act against bandwidth-heavy peer-to-peer services.

Ofcom says it has two concerns - transparency for consumers, and competition. So it wants to make sure consumers understand the traffic management policies of their broadband providers, and that companies don't use these techniques to do down their rivals.

But unlike the FCC, Ofcom is not coming out strongly in favour of net neutrality or ruling out the use of traffic management altogether. "We don't have the knee-jerk position on this that some have," says Ed Richards, "that any discussions of that kind are in all circumstances wrong."

The regulator says the UK has a far more competitive broadband landscape than the US, where most consumers can only choose between two suppliers.

Ofcom is now inviting comments on its policy document. So far, the net neutrality debate has not excited much passion in the UK. That may be about to change.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm conflicted by this debate because I don't believe the mobile operators are losing money on mobile broadband, O2 may have ground to a halt because of the data iPhones are sucking up but they have profited handsomely from the sale of the phones so I recon they will survive. At the same time their quote that 36% of the data is consumed by 3% of the users is unfair and something should be done about that.

    What I don't understand why everyone should be targeted and lose out because of the excesses of the miscreant 3%. Just target the 3%.

  • Comment number 2.

    I disagree with Cameron's assertion that the 3% of users consuming 36% of the data are somehow 'miscreant'. Perhaps they should be charged more, but the idea that you can use 'too much' internet is absurd when you consider how rapidly the way we do things (like consume media) on the internet changes and advances.

  • Comment number 3.

    An Internet Service Provider will have several links to other service providers/networks, which will vary in capacity. Even allowing some to congest, may result in better performance to some networks over others.

    Therefore, an ISP could allow a link to say the BBC to congest, whilst having faster connections to ITV. It's something that could happen by 'not acting' to upgrade links, not merely proactively slowing some content down.

  • Comment number 4.

    At last someone on the inside of a major content provider prepared to raise the debate of net neutrality, well done.
    I ask what cost to the BBC to push an hour of streamed content to an internet peering point and leave the Internet/Telco service providers to provide the rest of the transport compared to the cost of pushing the same hour out to a UK viewer over the terrestrial broadcast network?
    A look at the BBC financial statement is an indicator of the potential prize on offer here for content providers. Distribution costs in 2009 for TV & Radio of £163m compared to Online content distribution costs of £18m. Perhaps an over simplification, and there's a service obligation that holds the BBC ransom to a single terrestrial broadcast network provider too (OFCOM, where’s the competition here?), but Online distribution is cheaper and a richer user experience for people in the UK and worldwide.
    There needs to be more debate and a refresh of the funding model for a connected Britain. The ISP/Telco Service Providers can not be expected to foot the bill for a national high bandwidth infrastructure (funded only by reducing user access subscriptions) that is used for the delivery of other's content.

  • Comment number 5.

    Net neutrality is required to prevent anti competitive practices and billing complexities. All the ISP's and major content providers have peering agreements etc in place anyway, it's a symbiotic relationship and they need each other.

    The only sensible way to go about things is to carry on as the current trend - with on and off peak allowances and a sensible charging scheme if you need to go over. If a customer has paid for an allowance of bytes, it shouldn't matter where those bytes came from.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry to come in late, but hasn't anyone ever heard of selective bandwidth throttling?

    ISPs have done that for years to prevent the "greedy" users slowing the service down for everyone else.

    Sheesh - talk about using a steamroller to flatten a frog.

  • Comment number 7.

    Good that this is coming out. It needs more transparency from the ISPs. Personally, I'd like to see more tools like those from and perhaps a bit simpler for non-techical users to work out what throttling and shaping ISPs are doing so that we can compare and switch. I don't hear my water supplier saying "I'm sorry it took you half an hour to fill your kettle for a cup of tea this morning, we are throttling back your supply as for some reason everyone seems to be doing this at the same time and over-loading our pipes" - they have the infrastructure in place. The ISPs need to start investing in the infrastructure to deliver what people are reasonably expecting from what was sold to them. My partner wants to watch the occasional streaming iPlayer of an evening and how do I explain that our "unlimited up to 8Mb" village broadband cannot deliver that before midnight?

  • Comment number 8.

    So, the mobile networks are going down the path the terrestrial providers have followed, no surprises there. And, as usual, the consumer is to foot the whole bill for the problem. No surprises there either.

    Being a rural Internet user I am writing this on my very expensive "unlimited" 8 meg connection which struggles to achieve 2 meg. The fact I get a quarter of the bandwidth I was sold (my line was assessed as capable of 8 meg) is not my provider's fault, but mine apparently. It is unreasonable for me to expect my telco to actually provide the service I am paying for, they have bandwidth/line/exchange/concurrency problems. If they were a baker or car manufacturer this might be a valid excuse, as a national telecomms company my sympathy is somewhat limited. If I were a business user all these issues would magically disappear, as my bandwidth would be as sold. Strange that.

    In 22 months when my Android 'phone contract runs out presumably my mobile provider will explain to me that the costs have gone through the roof for the same reasons, but it won't be their fault. No Sir, we just provide the service. Unfortunately your experience of it will be ruined by people using it.

    I pay annually nearly £800 for mobile and landline communications, I don't mind this, it's my choice to have a Smartphone, broadband etc. What I mind is being short changed on service and bandwidth given this expenditure, and then being blamed for causing the problem in the first place.

    When will the UK telecomms providers wake up to the fact that their own policies and investment models are killing their revenues? There isn't much point trying to sell me TV on demand if the broadband I receive is not even capable of supporting my normal traffic adequately. How many people are going to use their Smartphones in the way the mobile companies would like them to, if access to the 'net is made ever more expensive?

    If Apple sells iPads, iPods and iPhones which depend on 'net access then the costs of this net access should be shared by Apple? If Microsoft insists its operating systems must download reams of updates then perhaps they should be contributing? If BT want you to share your broadband to help them provide free roaming broadband to their customers why should you pay for it?

    The telcos need to wake up, fast. The 'net is increasingly a major part of people's lives and that is not going to change. There is a vast stream of revenue which will only expand waiting to be exploited, unfortunately it will not be possible to reap the benefits unless universal fast broadband is provided at a reasonable cost, and traffic shaping, usage caps, and all the other tools designed to limit activity are a thing of the past.

    The 21st century is upon us telcos, why not bring your thoughts out of the 20th century and make the most of it? Change your business models, get creative with your investments, above all wake up, please.

  • Comment number 9.

    With most commodities society has learned that charging to use them on a metered basis provides a highly effective way of matching supply and demand, so why should data be any different. Petrol, electricity, food, even water, you name it.

    If the extra GBytes of the high user generated extra income for the provider then the incentive and funding to provide more bandwidth is automatically present. With the current regime it is not. Under the current regime actually *using* your connection is bad, whereas charged per GB it would be good.

    Mobile / wireless has its own issues in that God isn't making any more MHz of spectrum and we aren't getting much better at pumping Mbits/s per MHz so there is a fundamental limit in mobile networks that unfortunately is beyond the comprehension of the mainstream media or the typical Apple customer. If O2's entire spectrum capability on 3G is say 80 Mbits/s then that is being shared by all the users within range of that cell and you better find a way to share it out beyond the impending "Tragedy of the Commons".

  • Comment number 10.

    So the operators are concerned where their revenue is coming from are they? Psshhaw! I very much doubt they are barely breaking even: they are making massive profits already: let them reinvest some of it in the infrastructure.

    I find it deeply disturbing that users who consume more data should be forced to pay more for the privilege. This leads to a 2-tier internet, with only the richer able to afford to obtain knowledge/information. Think of the web as a huge library: do you really want to have to pay more to use it more? Information should be available to all, for the same (low) price.

  • Comment number 11.

    I dont seem to remember anyone forcing o2 to become the provider of the iphone, or any other network being forced to carry any other smartphone or dongle that works 3G, the operators chose to sell these products to have maximum contracts, ie max income. They forgot that income and profit are not supposed to be the same and failed to invest a suitable proportion of the income in to their networks instead laughing at all the £35+ a month payers. Now they claim that they dont have the infrastructure to cope with their customers doing what the phones were advertised as - media capable.
    I dont have a problem with different level pricing for different users provided speed is unaffected and that the scale of pricing is justified (which normally it isnt) this allows low users to enter the market and might allow those of us who pay our own bill to get something affordable. It might also help if smartphone users thought to switch to wifi when that is available rather than being constantly obsessed with 3G.
    If an ISP cant cope with the number of current customers it should stop advertising for new ones until it is ready. We saw the same thing with house building before the recession slumped it, loads of houses going up but too little in the way of infrastructure eg doctors, shops, water pipes..... to be able to cope.

  • Comment number 12.

    I am sick of hearing that throttling or raising prices is the answer to network congestion. The ISP's and network operators have the opportunity to monitor traffic growth hour on hour if they wish to, so that they can predict such increases in traffic usage.

    If they aren't planning to reinvest their huge profits they get from us in the UK then who's fault is that? Only their own. We already pay a huge premium for network services here.

    In Pakistan, an SMS costs less than a penny. And that's pay as you go, not a result of a fixed term contract. If they can afford to charge so little in parts of what could be considered third-world environments, why are we here paying insane premiums when the money isn't being reinvested in the infrastructure?

    Poor liddol network operators are whinging their profit margins are going to decrease for a change because they've failed to manage their business properly. Sorry, but that's not your consumers fault, and neither is it the fault of the company's providing large data quantities. They have been doing so for a long time already and opportunity was there for you to predict its expansion.

  • Comment number 13.

    In a neutral network environment, all packets are treated equally and users compete with each other for resources. The network provider does not protect users from one another. Users with high demands get a larger proportion of resources,
    while the pain of congestion is shared by all.

    Supporting network neutrality and the ever increasing volume of traffic on the network is going to be difficult. An "all you can eat" network access policy leads to over-grazing. And anyway, discrimination on the Internet has been around for a while, whether it is the filtering of SPAM e-mail or the Chinese government to censoring discussions on Taiwan independence. What discrimination is acceptable depends upon your point of view.

    Traffic discrimination, therefore, becomes less of a technical issue and more or a political and ethical one, that is, who sets the policies and to what end?


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