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Ofcom Will Act To Regulate Net Neutrality

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ISPs can use traffic management, but they have to make it clear to users how they will be affected otherwise Ofcom will intervene

Ofcom has said Internet service providers must be clear with their customers about what traffic management measures they are using, and has reserved the right to step in if they endanger “net neutrality” by throttling rival services across their networks.

Ofcom has said it will act under revised European framework for net neutrality, but only if improvements were not made to make consumer information on traffic management clearer and easier to understand, said the regulator in a statement today.

Avoid unintended consequences

It did, however, admit that  any intervention to introduce a minimum quality of service level would need to be carefully considered, to avoid unintended consequences for innovation and investment.

The European framework, which was implemented into UK law in May 2011, contains a new policy objective to promote Net Neutrality, and although ISPs already provide some consumer information on their use of traffic management, Ofcom believes the industry still does not go far enough.

“How ISPs control access to the internet affects us all and it is important that we are able to understand how our access might be restricted.  Ofcom is now looking to the ISPs to ensure that transparent information is available, and will consider intervening if it does not see improvements,” said Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards.

Setting out the steps it expects Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to take to ensure customers are aware of how internet traffic is being managed on their networks,  Ofcom encouraged industry, alongside the Broadband Stakeholder Group and consumer stakeholders, to further develop their self-regulatory initiative, a voluntary Code of Practice signed by the UK’s largest ISPs in March this year.

“Ofcom has set out a basic level of information which ISPs should provide to their customers at the point of sale including average speed information that indicates the level of service consumers can expect to receive, information about the impact of any traffic management that is used on specific types of services, such as reduced download speeds during peak times for peer-to-peer software as well as information on any specific services that are blocked, resulting in consumers being unable to run the services and applications of their choice,” it said in the statment.

Terms should be clear

“Terms used by ISPs to describe their services should also be clear.  In particular, a consumer paying for ‘internet access’ should expect this to include the full range of services available over the open internet.  ISPs should not use the term ‘internet access’ to refer to a service that blocks lawfully available internet services,” added the authority.

Welcoming the statement, Communications Consumer Panel Chair, Bob Warner said that it would be vital for Ofcom to continue to monitor the potential for harm to consumers. “The Consumer Panel has argued that ISPs must first make consumers aware of what internet traffic management is and how it potentially affects them. Without this it will be difficult for consumers to make informed choices about the broadband service that suits them,” he added.

Traffic management is used by ISPs – fixed and mobile – to deal with congestion by slowing down or accelerating the flow of traffic over the internet. In general it is beneficial, and is used for example to protect safety-critical traffic such as calls to the emergency services.  But it can cause concern, if for example it is used by ISPs to target competing services, in a manner which is not visible to consumers, according to the statement.

the ISPs’ organisation, ISPA welcomed the Ofcom announcement – and promised it was already doing everything needed, without any further regulation being required.

“ISPs in the UK are committed to delivering their customers with the best possible Internet access and ISPA welcomes that Ofcom confirmed today that it was satisfied with the provision of best-efforts access in the UK,” said Nicholas Lansman, ISPA secretary general. “The Internet delivers many benefits to consumers and businesses and ISPs deal with growing demand by investing in new capacity and by applying traffic management tools.

“We further welcome that Ofcom recognised that traffic-management tools and managed services can offer clear benefits to consumers, e.g. through the provision of high quality IP-TV or voice services,” said Lansman. “Like Ofcom, we recognise that transparency plays an important role and we welcome that Ofcom regards the self-regulatory system that is currently in development as a good foundation. We note that Ofcom would like to see a more creative approach to the delivery of information in a clear and understandable manner and feel that the self-regulatory process will be able to meet this challenge.”