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Thursday, July 26, 2012

UK Net Neutrality - moving towards the right idea

I've long taken an interest in the machinations & politics around Net Neutrality, especially here in the UK. My view has long been that fixed and mobile operators should be allowed to sell various "managed service" forms of data connection and broadband service, as long as it is made absolutely clear to end-users that this is not "Internet Access", and that it doesn't unduly interfere with Internet Access also provided on the same infrastructure.

My view has been that "Internet Access" means real Internet Access - ie as neutral and non-discriminatory as possible, except in emergency circumstances relating to necessary traffic management to protect overall network integrity.

(I'm not too purist about Net Neutrality, because most of the more slanted and anti-OTT vendor notions about application-based policy either don't work technically, or wouldn't be accepted by users in competitive markets)

I've talked about an "Appelation Controlee" or maybe a protected brand for the term Internet. It's like Champagne - it only comes from one place. Other drinks can't use the name. But it doesn't stop your local bar selling Cava or other sparkling wine as well.

If you're an operator selling Internet Access (TM), it has to be 100% Certified Prime Internet Access. Not "processed Internet-like substitute", or "I can't believe it's not Internet". You can call that something else, but it needs to be clear to customers that's it's fake little-i internet and not the real thing.

All traffic management policies should be made transparently available, and regulators should encourage the use of neutrality-checking tools by users, to make sure that they're not being hoodwinked. It should be a criminal offence equivalent to fraud, to deliberately or covertly manipulate open-Internet Access traffic.

Users should also be protected against non-Internet managed services causing congestion on shared links, to the degree that full-Internet becomes useless. Publishing actual performance targets and attained historic numbers, rather than headline speeds, would be a good way,

It should then be up to a government & population to decide whether offering some form of Internet Access should be a universal service obligation, and based on what criteria (eg average attainable speeds & latencies).

After that, operators should be free to experiment with different models - partnering with software or Internet companies on new products, developing new charging models and so on. Ideally, this would be separated from proper Internet traffic - perhaps even using different frequency bands on cables or airwaves, although that will not be universally feasible.

Two years ago, I wrote up a suggested "Draft Code of Conduct" that gave some guidelines that I felt were a reasonable compromise between a hardcore NetNeut position, and a completely "liberal" telco-centric "we can do what we want with our pipes" viewpoint.

I then polished this up into a submission for UK Regulator Ofcom's 2011 consultation on the topic, which is downloadable from here. (The submission has slightly less opinionated views on what I thought "should" happen than my Draft Code)

Then last March, a group of ISPs issued their own first attempt at a Code of Conduct. My discussion of it is here. I felt that it was an OK start, but tried to treat traffic types (video, text etc) as applications, which is wrong - video is 1000 different applications, often embedded into other applications. Trying to separate out an arbitrary traffic type for different treatment is like charging more for a magazine depending on the amount of green ink.

The next step in the saga was Ofcom's publication of its stance on neutrality in November last year. This very clearly laid out the distinction between Internet Access and managed services:

"In particular, if ISPs offer a service to consumers which they describe as ‘internet access’, we believe this creates an expectation that this service will be unrestricted, enabling the consumer to access any service lawfully available on the internet. As a result, if a service does not provide full access to the internet, we would not expect it to be marketed as internet access."

This fits very closely with the view I've been propounding. It doesn't stop operators offering different sorts of connectivity - for example, prioritised IPTV or VoIP. It does however mean that any partner-type models involving end-to-end prioritisation (ie on the access network, not just middle-mile shortcuts like CDNs) would not fit within normal Internet access models, but would have to be marketed separately. This is another nail in the coffin of unworkable concepts like 1-800 Apps for the UK.

This was then followed up with the European Regulators' group BEREC announcing its preliminary findings on traffic management earlier this year (Spoiler: lots of places block VoIP) and it is now doing a full consultation up until October. It too has noted the difference between real-Internet and fake-Internet services, and is considering options for allowing prioritisation, blocking etc.

The Dutch, meantime, have introduced "hard" Net-Neut legislation, following KPN's rather careless remarks about blocking or charging extra for WhatsApp or Skype. Other operators have suggested some form of Internet tax to protect their legacy revenue streams from others who've actually innovated over the last 100 years since the invention of the phone call. (This is the usual weak argument of "we're dumb, so can you please tax the clever people for us").

Now, a new version of the UK ISPs' code has been issued - the full document is here . This is the pivotal line, in my view:

"Signatories also recognise the importance of best efforts internet access being a viable choice for consumers alongside any managed services that might be developed and offered."

As well as:

"in instances where a product does not support full internet access, i.e. where certain classes of content, applications and/or services are blocked, the term “internet access” will not be used to describe or market such products. ISPs also commit to effectively communicating any restrictions on such products."

(There's a bit of semantic wiggle-room here, with "blocked" not necessarily including "degraded", but I suspect Ofcom will come down like a ton of bricks on anyone following the letter and not the spirit of the thing, not to mention considerable PR and competitor opprobium)

The stated ability to do traffic management to avoid serious congestion, block child-unsuitable material, avoid DDoS attacks etc also seems reasonable.

Supposedly, about 10 ISPs have signed up, but reportedly Vodafone hasn't because it thinks it's too restrictive about the term "Internet Access", and Virgin Media thinks its too laxly-worded and wants loopholes tightened up.

In my view, Vodafone: you need to grit your teeth and sign. Internet is Internet is Internet. If you want to sell something else, I'm sure your marketing  department is smart enough to come up with another brand. I can even give you some advisory input if you get in touch. (How about "Internet-flavoured access"?)

Otherwise overall, I think the UK ISP community is now world-leading at developing a suitable compromise between Net Neutrality, leaving scope for alternative telecom products and new business models.

I'm pleased that I may have helped, in a small way, to clarify some of the arguments and debates with my various posts and official consultation submissions.

1 comment:

tina said...

I think Vodafone has a reason for its decision. After all, what's the use of the internet service or the meaning or internet access if you cannot retrieve some data from the web? But, I think is just a case of lack of clear communication among the companies and the issuer of the UK ISP code.