Streaming surges see BT chief call for new net neutrality regulations

Marc Allera demands action on fairness in internet carriage as Amazon-hosted Premier League football drives new peak in traffic, 12% above previous high

Net neutrality seems like an issue forever associated with the era, but  BT Consumer division chief executive Marc Allera has become the latest UK networking supremo to call for a rethink of network carriage rules after a week in which UK national broadband providers’ networks saw an unprecedented surge after Amazon hosted a full round of Premier League football online.

Allera noted on 2 December, the company’s network had seen its highest peak in terms of traffic, with 25.5Tbps flowing over its fixed network. That was about 12% higher than the previous peak set in December 2020, driven, said Allera, by the popularity of midweek Premier League fixtures, with six games simultaneously streaming online.

UK ISP Sky Broadband also saw its highest peak of broadband traffic ever on 3 December, due to two Premier League matches – Manchester United v Arsenal and Spurs v Brentford – being streamed on Amazon Prime. Sky Broadband’s network peak was 19.9Tbps, with 98% of streamers on its network watching the games in HD or ultra HD quality, up 12% year on year.

Despite these all-time highs, Allera assured that BT had invested to ensure its networks can cope with this demand, but he warned that as demand grows further this decade, BT can see potential problems coming down the line. That was why he said the company was taking a stance on the need to review the rules governing the approach to net neutrality.

Allera’s argument was that the current net neutrality rules were first introduced earlier this century, designed to prevent any discrimination of traffic, in particular that might limit smaller players that were unable to compete with the biggest. Fast forward to the present, he said there has never been more need for a “fair, transparent and open internet” and the principles established to deliver that were no longer working for everyone in the ecosystem.

“The net is not neutral and becomes less so yearly,” Allera said in a blog post. “A quick glance at our own network data suggests that at peak times, up to 80% of traffic – and therefore capacity on our network – comes from just a handful of companies, some using models that can find and consume every last bit of space. It’s hard to argue that that doesn’t unfairly impact other users of the internet.

“We currently build huge excess capacity to support these inefficient processes. Capacity for content is not infinite and the exponential growth of data will, in the future, pass what we can reasonably be expected to build – or indeed expect consumers to have to pay for. What are occasional management issues now will become much bigger and more frequent challenges later in the decade, impacting everyone.”

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This issue has also been under discussion among BT’s fellow providers. In September 2021 at the Connected Britain conference, Vodafone UK CEO Ahmed Essam agreed with the need for a redefinition given the current state of the market compared with when the first regulations were drafted, and extended the discussion into the realm of mobile.

“When net neutrality was started, it wasn’t with 5G use cases in mind, and it limits the use of technology, such as how do we do slicing with 5G and how can you deliver some services?” he said. “I think you need to enable the service provider to differentiate your service without discrimination. And what’s making the trade-off is not taken into account as per the definition today, because it’s not taking the use cases into consideration.”

Allera conceded that the easy part of any new net neutrality was identifying what he called a fast-approaching challenge; tackling it was far harder. However, he made a call to action to prevent what he said would be old principles holding back modern technologies.

“Even identifying the issue causes some detractors to claim these are old arguments raised by network operators and we haven’t moved on. I don’t see it that way at all,” he said. “Faced with realities of an internet that is becoming increasingly filled with higher quantities of (and higher-resolution) traffic, and becoming squeezed on capacity as a result, we’re trying to find solutions.

“It’s not in the interests of any ISP – however new – to operate inefficient traffic management. Their investors should be asking serious questions if they did. The internet has evolved from an era of simple webpages to an ultra-complex system of streams, casts, on-demands and now a promised metaverse. It is critical national infrastructure.”

Allera added: “The rules that once signalled fairness are out of date and serve only to support the concentration of services, not support their diversity. I believe we can move forward without overriding the core principles of net neutrality: openness and transparency. In fact, I believe we need to, in order to protect them.”

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