Ofcom Wades Into Net Neutrality Debate

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Telecoms watchdog Ofcom wants to know how broadband operators should manage the traffic of their customers

Ofcom yesterday published a discussion paper on the thorny issue of net neutrality, opening debate in the UK on a thony issue which has vexed the US telecoms industry.

The US regulator, the FCC, has  had to deal with complaints that Internet service providers are not fairly treating the companies that use their data pipes.  Now the UK telecoms watchdog Ofcom is asking the industry if it should flex its regulatory muscle to force internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all traffic equally.

Getting ISPs to play fair

Network operators and ISPs have used internet traffic management to throttle the flow of different kinds of traffic over the web, to handle traffic more efficiently, prioritise traffic by type, guarantee bandwidth and block or degrade the quality of certain content.

However, some companies provide services across the Internet, such as Skype or Google, and have expressed concerns that ISPs might suppress the quality of their services, and restrict access to  content, particularly if it competes with services from the ISPs themselves. Lawsuits in the US have alleged anti-competitive behaviour, while ISPs have complained that Internet applications are not paying for the service they use – and may be charging the user for.

Ofcom now wants to know if “greater transparency” is required around traffic management. But the paper outlines its own preliminary view as, “there is currently insufficient evidence to justify regulation to prohibit certain forms of traffic management”.

Net neutrality
Net neutrality

Ofcom chief executive, Ed Richards stated: “New EU rules give regulators a clear responsibility to address the emerging issues around traffic management. The question is how Ofcom uses these and existing powers to further the interests of consumers, while supporting vibrant, innovative content production and network deployment.”

The watchdog’s existing powers and duties around traffic management include requiring suppliers to be transparent about their traffic management practices. But these will be strengthened by amended European Union rules that will become UK law in 2011, which could include obliging operators transparency about traffic management techniques as well as their practices.

In addition to the US other countries, including France, The Netherlands Norway, Sweden and Canada, are in the process of addressing net neutrality, while the European Commission is due to publish a consultation document about it this summer.

The closing date for responses to the Ofcom consultation is 9 September 2010.

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