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November 24, 2011

Ofcom threatens ISPs with regulation over speed throttling

Ofcom is warning ISPs to be clear on their traffic management policies, threatening regulation if any attempts to stifle competing services are made.

By Allan Swann

Traffic management, or throttling, is used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to deal with congestion by slowing down or accelerating the flow of traffic over the internet, particularly during peak times. To accommodate larger loads of traffic, services such as streaming, downloading and Peer-to-Peer services are often deliberately slowed.

The industry regulatory body today raised concerns that throttling may be being used by ISPs to target competing services in a manner which is not visible to consumers, and thus be a form of unfair trading.

It announced today that it will impose minimum quality of service levels on UK ISPs if they cannot self regulate.

For example, BSkyB customers could find that ITV’s online video player or BBC’s iPlayer is throttled back, while Sky’s on video service SkyGo runs at full speed in HD.

Video and audio copyright holders have also repeatedly lobbied ISPs and the government to cut off access to file sharing websites, or throttle back their speeds. In the modern globalised world, sometimes these companies are often one and the same.

Although UK ISPs already provide some consumer information on their use of traffic management, Ofcom believes it currently does not go far enough and needs to be made clearer and easier to understand.

In March 2011 the UK’s largest ISPs signed up to a voluntary Code of Practice which requires each one to produce a comparable table of traffic management information called a Key Facts Indicator (KFI). These were launched in June 2011. Ofcom now wants them to go further, and print information concerning average download speeds (rather than the maximum speeds often quoted) and any other company policy concerning traffic management.

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Communications Consumer Panel chair Bob Warner believes that Ofcom’s statement will be good for 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 said.

"How we manage broadband congestion is still at an early stage, but it will be vital for Ofcom to continue to monitor the potential for harm to consumers and take early action to ensure consumers benefit from effective transparency."

In the US, ISPs have long lobbied for the right to offer a premium service (i.e. higher speeds) to paying customers, above and beyond the conventional service. The US Senate threw it out as a breach of net neutrality, long a central tenet of the World Wide Web.

Net neutrality is the idea that every parcel of data should be treated equally regardless of the type of content being transmitted.

Members of the European parliament passed a resolution last week that the Internet should be kept "open and neutral" and attempts to infringe on net neutrality should be blocked. Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission and commissioner for the Digital Agenda, has called on the market to self regulate – but has not taken legislative remedy off the table.

Ofcom’s Net Neutrality statement can be read here.

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