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Net Neutrality and the BBC

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Erik Huggers Erik Huggers | 10:04 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

It is very easy to take the internet for granted. For many of us, it has become an integral part of our lives. It has transformed how we work, communicate, access media, and contribute to debate. It's only during those rare moments when some technical hitch means that you can't access the internet that you appreciate how great it is to be connected to all the content, services and applications that you want.

The companies which provide our broadband connections occasionally struggle to cope with the amount of traffic on the internet. And as traffic is only going to increase, it's critical that there is continued investment in next generation networks in order to cope with that growth and power a connected, creative economy.

Until that capacity is in place, the BBC recognises that traffic management may sometimes be necessary for technical reasons - for example to cope with legitimate network congestion. But this should be the exception. An emerging trend towards network operators discriminating in favour of certain traffic based on who provides it, as part of commercial arrangements, is a worrying development.

Why? For companies that can pay for prioritisation, their traffic will go in a special fast lane. But for those that don't pay? Or can't pay? By implication, their traffic will be de-prioritised and placed in the slow lane. Discriminating against traffic in this way would distort competition to the detriment of the public and the UK's creative economy.

The founding principle of the internet is that everyone - from individuals to global companies - has equal access. Since the beginning, the internet has been 'neutral', and everyone has been treated the same. But the emergence of fast and slow lanes allows broadband providers to effectively pick and choose what you see first and fastest.

There have already been a couple of incidents where access to BBC iPlayer was seriously restricted at certain times of the day. But this is broader than the BBC safeguarding online access to the public services we provide. Along with many other organisations, we recognise the benefits and endless possibilities that come from everyone being connected - sites like theyworkforyou, Mumsnet, and Audioboo have become highly valued democratic and social tools for so many people, while others like Facebook, youTube and Skype have become essential parts of our everyday lives - all having emerged as a result of the open internet. It's exactly these sorts of services that inspire people to go online in the first place, something which we try to help people with through BBC websites such as /connect and initiatives such as 'First Click' - our recently-launched media literacy campaign.

This innovative and dynamic ecosystem, that enables huge public value, could be put at risk if network operators are allowed to use traffic management to become gatekeepers to the internet.

Some say that traffic management is OK in a competitive broadband market - because people can switch broadband provider if they don't like the service they're receiving. In principle that could be right. But in reality, people don't tend to switch broadband provider because it's too complicated, expensive, confusing and often locked in to other services such as telephone and pay-TV. And even if switching were made easier, much more work is needed to deliver real transparency about the traffic management practices used by different broadband providers.

We've expressed this and other concerns to the industry regulator Ofcom and to the European Commission as part of their consultation on the issue. At this stage new legislation is not needed , since effective new EU rules have already been passed. But we do need the determination of regulators to now fully implement these rules, to prevent the emergence of practices which undermine the open internet which we so often take for granted.

Erik Huggers is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology


  • Comment number 1.

    If you want to get onto the topic of net neutrality someone should investigate the fact that BT puts bandwidth caps on their broadband service that limits the usage of BBC iPlayer (and other VOD services). Unless, that is, you pay for their BT Vision service which is "uncapped".

    My 'unlimited' plan on BT ran into the bandwidth cap before they increased it from 100GB through legitimate VOD usage, and the response from them was to pay for the BT Vision service which would restrict me to the VOD providers that they've blessed. Totally unacceptable.

  • Comment number 2.

    Akyan: Not just BT, but Virgin Media - even on their top package. Faster Upload Traffic Management table - My Virgin Media - Virgin Media.

  • Comment number 3.

    "The founding principle of the internet is that everyone - from individuals to global companies - has equal access". I think I must have missed this - is there a constitution of the Internet that no-one told me about?

    The reality is that everyone has always paid for the Internet, from hosting, to ISP charges, it's a free market and that's the real beauty.

    True competition dictates that the strongest succeed. This is generally through creating a service that consumers enjoy, people can monetise and therefore can afford to pay for the vital last mile connection that the ISPs provide. The BBC is of course a special case, but with £xBn can well afford the distribution costs - or there are others willing to take on those costs for them.

    Net neutrality is an over blown issue that never really was. No-one has a 'right' to a free Internet, you're always paying someone (ISPs, hosting, browsers, advertisers) - and you may as well be up front about it!

    Oh, and by the way it was never neutral, that's why the BBC pay CDN providers to ensure that iPlayer content is cached strategically around the Internet infrastructure so that it always appears quickly and in good quality.

  • Comment number 4.

    The internet will become a wealth skimming exercise for the benefit of the elite as a matter of course.

  • Comment number 5.

    Fact: ISPs are businesses that need to make money to survive. Otherwise there will be no Internet!
    Fact: Video is a hog that does not fit well with the traditional bursty nature of Internet traffic.

    The choice is simple:
    1) ISPs do not invest in the network - and the net grinds to a halt. we will reach the point where nobody will be able to watch video on the net at reasonable quality - and other services will also suffer as the net gets more congested.
    2) ISPs invest in the network to enable quality delivery of video. In order for this to happen, ISPs need to find a compromise between making money and allowing some degree of best effort access. Hence the fast lane.

    Net neutrality is inherently unfair. It means that lighter users subsidise heavier users. The only people who are interested in net neutrality are the ones who have benefitted from fast internet access at the expense of others - and want this to continue because it serves their interests.

    Also would anyone object if someone decided to build a video delivery network alongside the Internet? Well that is exactly what the fast lane is - a separate network that happens to share resources with the Internet in the interest of cost efficiencies. What can be wrong with that?

  • Comment number 6.

    I can't wait for the rest of the internet to heed the BBCs' call and follow its example of treating everyone the same. (Oh wait, what's that, your iPlayer treats certain devices differently to others, based on selective business arrangements?)

  • Comment number 7.

    So are we looking at a day when ISPs basically bundle together with a content provider and we're stuck with their offering of media? How would one go about getting access to other content at a decent bitrate? Would we need to sign up to several ISPs, much like buying two or more types of receiver in order to have access to the full range of digital TV/Radio channels.
    The strange thing here, in my mind, is that the ISPs would be holding conten providers to ransom by punishing their subscribers. This is most worrying for the BBC because it removes some of their power to control audience coverage, assuming they won't give in to the demands. I guess that if you get your web connection through Sky they would be able to provide their content over the web without any trouble? But us mere minions don't know what's going on behind the scenes, so it's hard to form an opinion based on fact.
    However, if broadcasters want to use the internet as their preferred method of distribution is it not fair that they pay toward preparing the infrastructure for a time when the web is the primary method of receiving video etc. Just as they had to with Radio transmitters. Well, no.
    People need to look at who gains what benefit from using the web in this way. ISPs are there to offer a service (access) and get paid for that, the broadcasters are there to offer content and get paid to do that. As this is about access to content I suggest it is between the ISP and the user. If the user wants to READ the internet; let them choose a slower connection at a lower price. If they want to WATCH the internet; let them pay a higher price, people only need to watch one thing at a time and if they want HD video they'll have to download it before watching. Leave the broadcasters out of it.


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