Net Neutrality and whether the government should regulate ISPs to guarantee an open and fair internet for all has become a trending topic. As an ISP my natural inclination is to say that there should be no regulation. A government’s job is to regulate only where necessary. ISPs are easy targets because the whole world is moving its operations online and ISPs are the conduit to that world. We are constantly warding off regulation.
Ofcom has said that there is not enough evidence for them to come up with any proposals for regulation in this space.
At the same time ISPs, in particular mobile ISPs have said that in order to be able to invest in the growth of their network infrastructure they need to be able to charge premium rates for premium services. The nature of these services has yet to be determined, at least publicly. Mobile network operators are expecting a hundred fold increase in bandwidth demand over the next three years and in their minds they need somehow to be able to pay for this capacity. O2 has been very vocal about this.
This has generated an outcry amongst proponents of Net Neutrality and in particular amongst operators of some time critical services such as Skype. Imaginations have run riot with speculation that operators will start charging content providers for premium access to their services. I am not party to any such deal being negotiated but this I believe is going to become all too complex for ISPs to manage. They have to keep it simple.
In the fixed world many ISPs (usually the big consumer ones but not exclusively) employ traffic management techniques to keep their network running. Their objective is not to stop people using services but to ensure that the customer experience is a good one. This means keeping users of Skype and similar services happy. This is not a guarantee of good performance. There are too many places in an end to end network that could be bottlenecks for data throughput, not all of which are necessarily on your ISPs network.
Mobile is a different kettle of fish. Mobile operators also employ traffic management. However mobile technology and infrastructure is still catching up with fixed (it may never actually catch up). The sudden demand for bandwidth is leading to serious levels of capital for the build out of faster mobile networks and this need to be justified on the back of a return on investment. It’s the same reason that BT and Virgin are not rolling out superfast broadband to rural areas with low population densities.
This is the background to Ed Vaizey’s speech this week on the subject. As an ISP I am not detached from the views of the many people arguing for Net Neutrality regulation. I will however agree with Ofcom and say that this is all currently conjecture and there is no evidence to suggest that operators are going to indulge in practices counter to the principles of open internet access.
That doesn’t mean to say that regulation might not be required in future but if we are not careful there would be no internet because it will have been regulated into the ground.
We are yet to see any specifics of premium mobile service plans. I will however leave you with one question. If it is acceptable for people to pay for access to the M6 toll road to avoid the congestion on the free motorway around Birmingham why should people object to a similar deal being offered for mobile data? I’m sure that many will chip in with reasons why not but it is the fundamental question surrounding Net Neutrality.