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Ofcom probes Three and Vodafone over suspected net neutrality breaches

Telecoms regulator launches investigation into whether or not mobile operators Three and Vodafone are flouting European rules on net neutrality

Ofcom has opened an investigation into mobile network operators (MNOs) Three and Vodafone over a possible breach of the European Union (EU’s) net neutrality rules, claiming it has evidence that both operators are engaged in illegal network traffic management practices.

According to the Financial Times, which first reported the story, the regulator is accusing both operators of throttling access to certain services in breach of the EU’s Open Internet Access Regulation 2015, which enshrined the principles of net neutrality into law across all 28 member states.

In essence, net neutrality is designed to eliminate the possibility that network operators might prioritise certain types of network traffic flowing over their infrastructure or charge more for certain bandwidth-heavy services, such as video. 

It is currently the focus of a consumer outcry in the US after Ajit Pai, chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), rolled back net neutrality protections established in the Obama era as part of president Trump’s systematic erasure of his predecessor’s work.

Ofcom plans to examine a number of practices it believes may infringe the European legislation. In Three’s case, these relate to restricting tethering – the practice of using one device to connect another device to the internet on certain plans; the practice of restricting devices in which a SIM can be used – Three prevents users from putting a smartphone SIM into a tablet, for example; and traffic management practices such as slowing down video, peer-to-peer and virtual private network (VPN) traffic, particularly when roaming abroad.

In Vodafone’s case, Ofcom believes the operator has also been throttling traffic for roaming customers, but the regulator also means to examine the transparency of exceptions to so-called “zero rating” – the practice of making traffic on certain applications, such as YouTube, exempt from charging under a user’s general data allowance – through a feature called Vodafone Passes. The regulator believes certain functions within some zero-rated apps are actually using customers’ general data allowances.

In its investigation brief, Ofcom said providers may use reasonable measures to manage traffic and improve the efficiency of their network, but it was vital that they were clear and transparent about doing so, and that any such measures could be imposed only for technical quality of service (QoS) reasons, and must not be used for longer than absolutely necessary.

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An Ofcom spokesperson confirmed to Computer Weekly that the investigations were ongoing, but gave no further details, citing legal restrictions. It will publish a further update on progress in June 2018.

Commenting on the investigation, a Three spokesperson said: “We will be working closely with Ofcom to understand their concerns.”

A Vodafone spokesperson flatly denied that the operator throttled speeds at all, and said it was “very disappointed” with Ofcom’s decision to specifically go after Vodafone Passes.

“Our Passes allow customers to access their favourite content without fear of running out of data or attracting out-of-bundle charges,” Vodafone said. “They are open to any content provider of video, music, chat and social.”

But the operator said it did optimise traffic on video content, which means it puts in place measures to ensure that all customers, not just those streaming video using Vodafone Passes, can have an optimised experience.

“We developed Vodafone Passes in direct response to customer feedback and have provided clear information to customers about how they work,” said the spokesperson. “We will be explaining all of this to Ofcom during the course of their investigation.”

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