Ofcom: no regulation on net neutrality

By Andrew Charlesworth
28 Sep 2010 View Comments
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Ofcom Riverside House
No evidence of a need for regulation, says Ofcom

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has reviewed submissions to its consultation on internet traffic management and does not see the need to step in as regulator.

The consultation, which closed on 9 September, sought industry views on a variety of issues around traffic management by ISPs, including whether regulation was required to set a minimum quality of service for open internet access.

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Despite protestations from various groups that some network operators’ traffic management could discriminate against some content or application providers, Ofcom does not see sufficient evidence and is not about to regulate.

“Ofcom is committed to dealing swiftly with problems as they emerge, but we are also committed to approach issues in such a way as not to assume a problem before a problem has emerged,” Ofcom international director Alex Bowers told an audience of telecoms professionals at the Westminster e-Forum in London today. “We will not regulate ahead of a problem and impose a market structure on the industry.”

Bowers said any intervention by the regulator “will have to be a process that is led by real evidence and real manifestations of problems arising, and that is simply not there yet".

The issue of net neutrality – the concept embedded in internet protocols that all data packets are treated equally by ISPs which ensure their "best efforts" to forward them to their destination – has caused sharp debate in the US.

The fear among proponents of a fully open internet is that dominant ISPs will strike commercial deals with large content providers to give their traffic priority to the detriment of other content, stifling innovation and even threatening free speech – anathema in the US. The Federal Trade Commission was on the verge of enshrining "best efforts" in regulation but has delayed the decision.

The UK regulator has interpreted the net neutrality debate purely in terms of the pros and cons of traffic management. The regulator’s reasoning is that if consumers find the traffic shaping used by their ISP to be “uncongenial” to their internet access experience, they should be free to switch ISP.

The UK has a more competitive internet access market than the US, where the choice is essentially between two major suppliers.

However, Ofcom accepts that this requires a high level of transparency from ISPs about the traffic shaping they use, a clear translation from technical jargon to language that spells out how that affects a consumer’s specific access, and an easy switching regime, none of which currently exists.

The latter may well be addressed through regulation: giving consumers the right to a 12-month internet access contract so they are not locked in to an ISP. This provision will probably be introduced under the EU’s Revised Telecoms Framework, although the UK government has yet to decide how to implement the Framework, said Bowers.

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