Ofcom to investigate net neutrality

The chief of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has said the authority will investigate web traffic control measures later this year as the net neutrality debate rumbles on.

James Middleton

March 4, 2010

3 Min Read
Ofcom to investigate net neutrality
Service providers should be free to favour traffic from one content provider over another as long as they keep users informed, Vaizey said

The chief of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has said the authority will investigate web traffic control measures later this year as the net neutrality debate rumbles on.

Ed Richards, who gave a keynote speech at the Cable Congress conference taking place in Brussels this week, said that in light of Europe’s move to adopt region-wide telecoms legislation, national regulators needed to assess the ‘openess’ of the internet and decide whether action needed to be taken to preserve it.

Traffic management measures are now commonly used by service providers to prevent bandwidth hogging by heavy users of services. But there is great concern that bandwidth throttling could be used ant competitively to restrict rival services.

Richards also said that service providers need to be more transparent in explaining what measures they use to their customers.

UK ISP Virgin Media, which is a vocal opponent of net neutrality (in fact CEO Neil Berkett once referred to the concept of net neutrality as “a load of bollocks”) just last week implemented web traffic management software from Zeus to ensure its customers receive a decent web experience even during spikes in demand.

Alex Brown, senior product manager for internet products at Virgin Media, said: “We wanted to offer customers better email and web services but at the same time ensure we can deliver them without impacting service levels or compromising security. Since we are dealing with massive volumes of traffic, reliability and performance is of paramount importance.”

When asked if Virgin was introducing throttling – one of the functions of the Zeus implementation – by stealth, we received no reply.

Google, as one of the world’s biggest generators of web traffic, often pops up in conversations about net neutrality, and Vodafone and Telefonica have recently made statements that suggest they are thinking of charging search engines to use their networks.

Both Telefonica CEO Cesar Alierta and Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao have said that they are thinking about charging Google and other search engines to use their networks.

Alierta implied that it was unfair that search engines were using mobile bandwidth for free while Telefonica’s operations provided the network, product sales, customer care, installation and maintenance for them.

Alierta said that he was sure this situation would change and that search-engine companies would need to start paying for some of the infrastructure, possibly through the introduction of monthly fees in accordance with the amount of data generated by each site. Colao used his keynote speech at Mobile World Congress to say that search engines such as Google and Yahoo should pay for preferential access to the company’s networks.

However, Informa analyst Paul Lambert asserts that for now, the arguments are unsound, and in strategic terms they point to a misreading by the operators of the balance of power between Google and them.

“Why? Let’s take the “wrong in principle” argument first: Why should Google pay operators to allow mobile users to access its services? And why should Google – but not the BBC, Spotify, The New York Times, Facebook, HSBC or any other content/service provider – be required to pay operators for access to networks?” Lambert said.

“At the moment, Vodafone and Telefonica need the big search engines more than these companies need them. People expect to use Google and other popular Web sites on their mobile phones. The balance of power lies with Google and co., not any individual mobile operator. Unless Vodafone and Telefonica actually block Google and other Web sites from their networks, the majority of their customers will find a way to use them, because that’s exactly why they signed up to data plans in the first place – to use these Web sites while on the go.”

About the Author(s)

James Middleton

James Middleton is managing editor of telecoms.com | Follow him @telecomsjames

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