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Net Neutrality for U.K.?
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Net Neutrality for U.K.?

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March 04, 2010
By Gary Kim
Contributing Editor


Network neutrality may get a look from United Kingdom regulator Ofcom, according to Ofcom CEO Ed Richards, in part because content companies and access providers alike are grappling with their core roles in the application ecosystem and revenue model, in part because real-time services are a bigger part of the application mix, and in part because resource allocation and network management chores necessarily are contentious business issues when access bandwidth is finite.

 
The issue seems to be coming to a head because “the deployment of traffic management techniques and policies is now happening in scale,” says Richards, in remarks to the Telegraph.
 
In the United Kingdom, as elsewhere, congestion management, always a part of managing scarce resources under peak loads, has become a business and policy issue because video is such a huge part of demand and because the typical way scarce resources are managed on communication networks is to block or slow down some classes or types of traffic, or some users, rather than others, to maintain quality of service.
 
That happens all the time. Perhaps you have encountered a “fast busy” signal when trying to place a landline telephone call. Public networks routinely are designed to block call attempts at peak load. Typically, the standard is that about two percent of call attempts will be blocked at times of peak congestion.
 
The same thing happens on mobile networks, where call or session attempts are simply blocked because there is no available capacity, typically at rush hour, and often at perhaps 10 percent of radio sites.
 
Richards says several media companies had raised concerns about the issue of net neutrality recently, especially the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same by internet service providers.
 
The issue of how access providers can pay for ever-more bandwidth to services such as the BBC iPlayer TV platform has been contentious for a couple of years.
 
ISPs say their networks are being disproportionately affected with video traffic created by uses of the BBC application, and some ISPs likely are slowing video packets at times of congestion in order to provide consistent connections and reliable service to all customers.
 
It is understandable that video application providers worry about the obvious danger of experience disruption caused by particular traffic management techniques.
 
So the issue sets up a typical commercial dispute. In the U.S. cable TV industry, for example, there always has been a difference between financial interests of programmers and those of distributors. Those disputes have gotten more intense of late, for the same reason neutrality debates have sharpened: there is financial stress in the business.
 
There are new players in the value chain and hence new ways of distributing ecosystem revenue, as the positions of incumbents in both the content and distribution roles are being challenged.
 
U.S. access providers may consider charging broadcasters and other content providers a premium to deliver their high-definition, high-bandwidth media to consumers. Video content providers say ISPs are slowing down those packets.
 
In 2009, the BBC accused BT (News - Alert) of “throttling” download speeds for its iPlayer service, while BT said that content providers should not expect a “free ride” when imposing unusually-high demand on the access network.
 
“Traffic management policies need to be very clearly explained and very transparent,” says Richards.
 
At least so far, the Ofcom executive has indicated that a highly interventionist approach might not be appropriate for the United Kingdom and Europe, and that it was “even harder to justify blanket net neutrality rules when we consider the risks they could pose to potential collaborative and desirable investment in networks.”
 
That said, Richards also says the difference exists because the range of access competitors in Europe is greater than typically exists in the U.S. market.
 
In the United States, limited competition, both at the network and the ISP level, means that the potential for consumer detriment through traffic management is greater, says Richards.
 
European networks typically have extensive wholesale-based competition for broadband access services.
 
Richards says service providers need to be more open with consumers about their traffic management policies. “Even if consumers have access to transparent information, they need to understand how traffic management practices will affect their day-to-day experience of a service and be able to assess which product best meets their needs,” he says.
 
There are public policy issues involved here. But so are commercial relationships between partners in loosely-coupled value chains.

Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Kelly McGuire

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