Ofcom to hold consultation on net neutrality

UK communications regulator looks into media owners' complaints that broadband carriers are deliberately slowing down some types of net traffic.

Ofcom is to consult on net neutrality - the idea that all bits should be treated equally on the internet - following media owners' complaints that broadband carriers are deliberately slowing down some types of net traffic.

Net neutrality has been an issue in the US for many years, but is becoming a problem in the UK and Europe, Ofcom head Ed Richards told an audience at a Financial Times conference this week when he announced the forthcoming consultation.

Some types of network traffic, such as video and voice, are time-critical. All or most of the bits that make up the content have to be present for the message to be intelligible. Network owners hope to charge people extra for giving priority to this type of traffic.

This is unacceptable and against the spirit of the internet, say critics. It will lead to a reversion to monopoly suppliers and a decline in innovation, they say.

Jean-Jacques Sahel, director of government and regulatory affairs at voice over IP software firm Skype, says mobile network operators either ban Skype completely or provide a degraded service to VoIP calls. This is either written into their terms and conditions, or is done secretly.

He said European telecoms legislation presumed net neutrality, which makes such actions illegal. But national implementations of the law allowed network operators to discriminate against Skype. He said Skype was making representations to national regulators to enforce net neutrality.

Network operators are already under pressure to boost capacity to meet national broadband obligations and to cope with the rise in mobile backhaul traffic.

Most are worried that "bandwidth hogs" such as BBC's iPlayer, which uses a peer-to-peer network protocol to distribute video material, will take up all their capacity, leaving none for normal web users.

Last year BT accused the BBC of getting a "free ride" on its networks for iPlayer. BT has its own video distribution business, BT Vision.

Most internet service providers (ISPs) already include provisions in their terms and conditions that users may not receive all the capacity they pay for. This provides ISPs "wriggle room" to manage congestion on the network.

In its latest survey, Ofcom found that average broadband speeds in the UK were 4.1Mbps - about half the "up to 8Mbps" service most were paying for.

John Chambers, CEO at network equipment maker Cisco, said recently that video was the future of internet communications. Cisco paid $3.4bn for online video system maker Tandberg to strengthen its hand in the digital video market.

Most corporates that use video conferencing do so over private or dedicated networks because of the bandwidth required. However, Google's YouTube and other video sites are increasingly popular media for corporates to reach consumers. In addition, Skype, which already offers video calls over fixed networks, is likely to launch video over mobile as well as a business grade telephony/video service.

These will cause congestion on both fixed and mobile networks, creating incentives for network operators to provide tiered services based on quality of service criteria, and requiring service level agreements.

Managing network costs, already complicated, could become a lot more so if net neutrality is ditched.

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