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November 18, 2010

BBC warns ISPs over net neutrality

Maintaining an open and neutral internet is critical, says the Beeb


The BBC has confirmed its commitment to an "open and neutral" Internet and warned ISPs that it would be forced to notify users if its service was being throttled.

The warning, set out in a blog post by director of BBC Future Media & Technology Erik Huggers, follows a number of recent events that have pushed net neutrality to the top of the agenda.

The European Commission said it was in favour of net neutrality: "A healthy competitive environment allows the tackling of many potential problems at their root, avoiding the emergence of monopolistic gatekeepers which could create serious dangers for net neutrality," said Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda.

"To let competition work, consumers need to be effectively informed about traffic management practices and to be able to easily switch operators if they are not satisfied. We have to avoid regulation which might deter investment and an efficient use of the available resources," Kroes added.

While admitting that traffic management is essential, "to optimise the provision of ‘best effort services’ on the open Internet, [and] also to allow the development of special managed services, such as eLearning or eHealth applications," Kroes said it should be, "used properly, in order to increase the quality of Internet services, preserve network integrity and open the way to new investments in efficient networks."

However, here in the UK communications minister Ed Vaizey seemed to give ISPs the right to prioritise traffic. Speaking at a Financial Times Telecoms conference in London this week, Vaizey said: "A lightly regulated Internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people. But it is also right the Government puts in place the right infrastructure to support it and has a view on how it should be governed."

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To enable investment and innovation, Vaizey said, "ISPs should be allowed to manage their networks to ensure a good customer service," and adopt flexibility in their business models. This suggests that ISPs will be able to prioritise content from one website over another for commercial reasons. However, Vaizey continued, "users should be free to access the content, applications and services they want as long as it was legal to do so."

The BBC has not reacted too kindly to Vaizey’s words. Writing on the Beeb’s Internet Blog, Huggers said. "Maintaining an open and neutral internet is critical. I’m concerned by recent developments whereby ISPs discriminate in favour of certain traffic based on who provides it. In an era of fierce competition, it’s understandable that some network operators might look to gain commercial advantage by charging for content distribution."

Huggers also sent out a warning to the government, saying the BBC would let its users know if its traffic was slowed down. "To this end, our R&D team are developing a prototype meter to show consumers in real-time how efficiently BBC iPlayer is being delivered by their ISP – with a simple red, amber, green indicator. In addition, we propose to work with the industry to discuss the possibility of a "kitemark" to denote levels of different broadband package capability in simple, easy-to-understand language," he wrote.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group said Vaizey’s speech, "misses a vital point: being "open" about "closing" the Internet won’t deliver competition and innovation on the Internet. Walled gardens can easily work to further segment and control markets, and tip the balance against innovation, towards established copyright industry players. By doing so, they can limit the access of different voices to audiences, and limit the power of our freedom of speech. This is why this debate matters, and why Ed Vaizey is wrong to dismiss it."

Hugo Harber, director of convergence & network strategies at managed services provider Star added: "The reality is that at the moment, net neutrality does not exist in the UK. Unconstrained traffic management is simply not realistic and most ISPs are throttling back certain applications, or at certain times of the day, in order to manage the traffic on their networks."

"We want to avoid a situation where we are overly regulated, however, balancing the needs of the different players – service providers, application providers and consumers – will require changes to the way services are delivered and monitored," Harber continued. "In the future it looks likely that greater transparency will come into play so that ISPs are accountable for the level of service they are providing – sharing the practice of ‘throttling back’ with consumers could be a good thing in providing a level of honesty about the kind of service they deliver."

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