Market Insight

Ofcom aims for bandwidth throttling transparency

November 25, 2011

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UK regulator Ofcom has stated that it expects ISPs to ensure that customers are made aware of how their network Internet traffic is being controlled. The move has been introduced to increase transparency, and reduce the possibility of ISPs controlling traffic to the detriment of services offered by their competitors.

The regulation of network traffic, known as bandwidth throttling, is often necessary to reduce excessive network congestion. When used appropriately, controlling network traffic can allow users fair access to the Internet, can reduce network crashing (which can occur in extreme cases) and can also reduce network infrastructure costs.

ISPs have previously taken steps to improve the nature of information available to their customers. This includes a voluntary Code of Practice signed by the largest ISPs in the UK in March 2011. According to this Code of Practice, ISPs must produce a table showing comparative network traffic information. These tables, known as Key Facts Indicators (KFIs) were launched in June 2011.

Despite this, Ofcom believes that more is necessary, and has challenged ISPs to come up with appropriate information regarding the control of network Internet traffic that is easy to understand and easily accessible to customers with average technical know-how.

According to Ofcom, this should include information regarding the average speed and expected level of service, information on the different types of traffic management used on services and their potential impact on bandwidth speed and information on web services that are blocked or subject to significant traffic shaping.

Conveying this type of information to the average Internet user can be difficult. The average user may not know the purpose of controlling network traffic and why it is sometimes necessary. Users often do not know the actual speeds of their Internet service and may have difficulty in relating the information supplied by the ISP's to their own personal usage.

However, if done correctly, the move could potentially add another element of competition to the ISP sector, with companies competing not only on speed, price and add-on services, but also on how access to popular third party services are managed by the ISP. Practically-speaking, whether consumers will identify correctly which web-service issues may be the result of traffic shaping will become apparent if and when ISPs begin to adopt these recommendations.

Ofcom's recommendations coincide with a new EU ruling on the case of collecting society SABAM versus Belgian ISP Scarlett. The EU Court of Justice has stated that national courts can no longer order ISPs to actively monitor and filter general information transmitted over their networks for the purposes of restricting the flow of illegal distribution of copyrighted material. While the ruling still allows for action to be taken by rightsholders against ISPs to prevent user access to specific services and websites, it precludes the installation of a monitoring system on both cost and data privacy grounds.

With this and the Ofcom proposal in mind, making network control more transparent will mean that UK ISPs may have to publically take a view on whether or not they will allow the illegal downloading of content, since it is now broadly their choice whether or not to do so. While specific services may be blocked by ISPs as a consequence of legal action, general restrictions/shaping on certain forms of traffic will be up to individual ISPs. With consumers and industry bodies likely to now gain additional detail on what UK ISPs are doing to shape network traffic and therefore influence the quality of available services, broadband service providers may find themselves under increased pressure from multiple points in  the broadband and content value chains.

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