Net neutrality: Controlling the traffic
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.
That'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.
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.