Comcast decision casts a long shadow on UK net neutrality

The US government's plans to provide 90% of citizens with 100Mbps broadband access in 10 years could be hijacked by network operators

The US government's plans to provide 90% of citizens with 100Mbps broadband access in 10 years could be hijacked by network operators following a US federal appeals court's decision this week.

The impact of the decision is likely to ripple across the pond, changing profoundly relationships between network operators, content providers and consumers.

The DC court found that the communications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exceeded its authority in asking cable network provider Comcast to stop throttling BitTorrent traffic, essentially peer-to-peer file-sharing.

The decision opens the way to a two-tier internet, one with high speeds for those prepared to pay more and/or to deliver time-sensitive content such as real-time voice and video, and a slower service for everything else.

The FCC had encouraged everyone to work on the principle that every bit on the network was equal and should be carried as such. This principle, known as net neutrality, has been key to allowing small businesses to compete on a nominally equal basis as the biggest companies.

That appears dead. The decision appears to allow network operators discriminate against certain types of traffic and/or people who send or receive that traffic.

The decision is good news for US network operators, who can now prepare new pricing plans based on acutely segmented markets. They are also better placed to haggle with content providers who may wish to use the networks to deliver films, videos and other content more quickly.

Network operators could use the extra cash to speed up the roll-out of even faster networks, but it is unlikely to encourage them to widen their reach until they have saturated cities and towns with high-speed links.

Network operators in the UK face similar problems about where to find the money to invest in "superfast" broadband networks. Their problems deepened as the government gave up its controversial 50p a month tax on landline phones, the proceeds of which were to pay for higher speeds, mainly in underserved areas.

Net neutrality has until recently been less of an issue in the UK and Europe than it has in the US. But last month UK communications regulator Ofcom announced it would consult on the issue.

Internet service providers have always "shaped" traffic by managing the bandwidth available to users. Skype, which provides voice and video over Internet Protocol, has long complained that fixed and mobile carriers ban or deliberately degrade Skype traffic.

Network operators say they degrade individuals' service so that, on average, everyone receives the same service. They also do it to stop some applications, such as BBC's iPlayer, from grabbing all the available bandwidth while it downloads files to a subscriber, effectively leaving other people on the network with an engaged signal. This is one reason why actual and advertised broadband speeds differ, something Ofcom wants to tighten.

Net neutrality has been rising up the UK and European agenda because of moves to suppress online content piracy. "Technical measures" such as restricting bandwidth and access are central to efforts to fight online pirates.

For CIOs who have their own physical or virtual networks, this debate means little, unless they have a big footprint on the web.

Smaller firms that are being wooed onto the broadband wagon need to be wary. Abandoning network neutrality puts network operators in the position of spiders that use their webs to catch prey, later to suck the life from their trapped bodies, said one commentator.

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