EDITORIAL: It's time for a Net Neutrality debate

Australia should sort out its position on Net Neutrality before the National Broadband Network is built, not afterwards, writes TechTarget ANZ Editor Simon Sharwood.


Everyone knows that free-to-air television is in strife. Technology means that the old idea of “appointment television,” whereby you arrange your life to meet the networks’ schedules, is well and truly on the way out.

In the UK, that trend has been accelerated by the BBC, which has created a piece of software called iPlayer that lets you “catch up with the programmes from the past seven days you've missed, or want to watch again, free of charge by playing them direct on the BBC iPlayer website or downloading them to your computer.” Downloaded shows are DRM-protected, but can be played as many times as you want for thirty days.

iPlayer is available for PCs and even for Nintendo’s Wii, to make it even easier to display content on a TV in the lounge room.

Unsurprisingly, iPlayer is a runaway hit.

Prior to its introduction, however, UK ISPs cried foul because they saw the potential for massive downloads generated by iPlayer to swamp their networks. They feared the costs of iPlayer driven downloads and therefore raised the issue of Net Neutrality, the notion networks should carry any content, regardless of its source and the commercial benefit that flows from carriage.

The counter-argument is that content providers who, like the BBC, consume massive network resources should pay for the privilege instead of downstream companies having to make all the investment needed to cope with end-user demand. A variation sees telcos suggest that as it is not in their interests to carry Skype packets on their networks, perhaps Skype should pay to guarantee transmission.

These counter-arguments have recently re-emerged snowballed, with the incoming CEO of Virgin Media in the UK saying that “… net neutrality … is a load of b****cks" and vowing to create slower “bus lanes” on his network for content from those unwilling to pay for access to its network.

Similar arguments have been raised in the USA and Telstra has tried to spark the same debate here.

Your editor, in correspondence written as a private citizen, secured assurances from the previous communications minister that existing consumer protection laws would prevent unravelling of Net Neutrality in Australia.

Time to talk

Here at TechTarget ANZ, we believe it is probably time for proper debate on Net Neutrality in Australia.

One reason is that our very own version of iPlayer is upon us, in the form of ABC Playback, the ABC’s video-on-demand service.

The second is that, as part of the tender process for the National Broadband Network, Senator Stephen Conroy has said it is “prepared to consider changes to existing telecommunications regulations, in part to “ensure the best outcomes for all Australians and the competitiveness of the economy. The public is invited to make submissions about the kind of regulation it feels is appropriate.

With the Net Neutrality debate heating up overseas and poised to break here once ABC Playback gathers steam, now is surely the time to debate and settle the Net Neutrality issue in Australia, rather than building new broadband infrastructure and fighting over the issue later.

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