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U.K. Urges ISPs to Divulge Traffic-Shaping Policies

in Broadband's Impact/Europe/International/Net Neutrality by

LONDON, October 7, 2010 - The U.K. regulator Ofcom has shied away from enforcing network neutrality, but has urged service providers to be more transparent about their traffic shaping policies. There is also pressure for mobile service providers to stop discriminating against specific applications in order to enforce use of their own.

U.K. operators were relieved to hear that their existing traffic shaping practices will be allowed to continue, following a recent eForum in London called “Net Neutrality in the U.K.”

This recognized the reality that without traffic shaping at peak times, the cost of broadband services would have to double, according to Hugo Harber, director of convergence and network strategy at Star, which provides managed broadband services in the U.K. to small and medium businesses.

“We don’t have network neutrality in the U.K.,” said Harber, who attended the U.K. eForum. “There is some application restriction and all the major networks such as BT and Virgin Media restrict [peer to peer] traffic at peak times, or else they’d have to upsize their networks. That’s considered quite acceptable, and the response from Ofcom and from the Communications Consumer Panel was that this should be more transparent.”

Consumers of low cost consumer broadband services need to be told that traffic shaping is necessary to keep down the price they pay, but must also be informed how and when it is done, and what applications it affects, according to Ofcom. “This should be clear and up front, not buried away somewhere in a web site,” Harber added.

The other major issue discussed at the forum concerned blocking of applications on mobile applications, which is a problem for U.K. consumers but does not happen in the United States.

“In the U.K. if you go on a mobile broadband service with say Vodafone, the voice-over-IP capability is disabled so that you can’t access products like Skype , so that you have to use their paid services,” said Harber.

Vodafone argues this is because services like Skype are not yet robust enough for mobile networks, but they are still available on U.S. mobile services where consumers can choose whether to use them. At the London eForum, it was considered that such blocking stifled innovation and should be discouraged, although without any firm proposals for legislation at present.

But while consumers should be free to access whatever internet services they choose, this does not mean they should be free of charge. Consumers will have to accept they must pay more say for regular streaming of high definition video, even when this does exceed the speed of their access connection. “You don’t have an automatic right to stream the BBC iPlayer,” said Harber, referring to BBC's catch-up TV service in the United Kingdom.

Philip Hunter is a London based technology reporter specialising in broadband platforms and their use to access high speed services and digital entertainment. He has written extensively for European publications about emerging broadband services and the issues surrounding deployment and access for over 10 years, with a technical background in ICT systems development and testing.

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