A Ministerial Roundtable on Net Neutrality had been scheduled for 24th January (ie yesterday) with Internet Minister Ed Vaizey and the major fixed and mobile operators due to attend. EV is expecting industry to produce a voluntary code of practice in respect of Net Neutrality. In the run up to the meeting and following individual discussions with some of the intended participants the Minister has apparently been unhappy with progress. The Round Table has been postponed until 28th March to allow time for further industry discussion.
Net Neutrality is a very emotional subject. By and large in my view it is something that has been creating more noise than the issue has perhaps merited but I can understand people’s concerns. The issue of transparency is in particular an important one – if an operator has policies in place that affect its users then the users need to know. Such policies should also not be buried in the fine print of lengthy, seldom read sets of terms and conditions.
The one market sector that the “powers that be” have seemed to take a particularly lenient approach in respect of this in the past has been mobile. My view has been that provided mobile operators aren’t particularly blocking specific services (eg VoIP) then if these services don’t perform well because of congestion caused by capacity constraints then so be it. I also think it is ok to offer premium services that don’t have congestion or capacity constraints.
The work leading up to the Ministerial Round Table has however uncovered some interesting dirt. The Internet Telephony Service Providers Association has long protested that Mobile Network Operators are blocking VoIP. ITSPA has now published a paper that goes into some detail regarding the MNOs practices in this respect.
In most cases MNOs are not transparent about their policies towards VoIP over mobile data1. A typical customer of a typical MNO would not be aware, when purchasing a plan via the MNO website, whether VoIP was allowed or blocked (Vodafone are an exception, providing very clear information).
Some information is wrong or misleading. More generally customers would need to be well informed (for example understanding that they should search ‘Traffic Management’) in order to discover the policy of most MNOs towards VoIP. Market forces cannot be assumed to work if the market is not properly informed.
MNOs serving the majority of the market (Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange) either prohibit VoIP in their terms and conditions and / or charge a premium for using it and/or actively block it. This is likely to discourage innovation and investment in services that use VoIP over mobile data. I can’t see that that there is a technical justification for this prohibition – VoIP is not bandwidth hungry like video.
The Ed Vaizey initiative seems timely and industry should be seen to be toeing the line here. I’m not confident that this will be the case, especially when it comes to MNOs. If you are an individual end user it is hard enough to choose a tariff let alone wade through the complexities of the Ts and Cs.
This whole discussion deems doubly important as we now approach the 4G spectrum auctions. This is an opportunity for Ofcom to ensure that Net Neutrality and transparency is built natively into the new services as they are rolled out. I’m not arguing for favouritism for VoIP here but I am saying that legitimate services should not be discriminated against, regardless of the pricing point and level of service.
Let’s hope Ed Vaizey gets what he is after on 28th March. If I can track down any drafts of the code of practice I will.
1 a legitimate question would be why you would want to make a call VoIP over what is quite an expensive mobile data transport medium. That is really neither here nor there as far as this debate goes and costs will in any case plummet over the next few years.