Last week, the UK communications regulator Ofcom set out its stall on equal access to services online, a repetition, in the main, of their usual stance: some differentiation on services is fine, just be upfront about it.
To that end, for example, the regulator warned ISPs that they should be providing more information on how traffic management polices will affect specific services. The fact that most UK ISPs throttle P2P downloading at peak times is no problem, then, but it is a concern that only some specify the speeds that P2P users are actually likely to experience during those periods.
Ofcom’s finger wagging has the advantage of pushing UK ISPs along a path they’re already, more or less, following which bodes well for the regulator’s repeated assertion that competition will create an open web by itself.
Over the past year, and with a minimum of Ofcom intervention, ISPs have made huge strides in the amount of information they make to available to their end users, if not, as net neutrality advocates have been quick to point out, the policies themselves.
Most have already agreed, alongside the Broadband Stakeholder Group, to publish a standardised checklist which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the Key Facts Indicator Ofcom is asking them to provide and, in general, the era of the vague ‘fair use’ paragraph (“we will restrict excessive use at our discretion”) seems to be coming to an end. ’Internet access’: giving competition a helping hand
Clearly, however, these measures aren’t quite enough yet and Ofcom’s announcement hinted at some future plans. For example, the regulator seemed to suggest that the term ‘internet access’ could be restricted:
If ISPs offer a service which they describe as ‘internet access’, we believe this creates an expectation that this service will be unrestricted
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.
UK ISPs already use a variety of different terms to market their services so it’s not at all likely that this advertising restriction would go noticed by consumers unless some other term (‘restricted internet access’ perhaps?) was made a mandatory replacement.
It’s also not clear, given that Ofcom regards all ‘best effort’ internet connections as ‘open’, which services would be harmed by such a ban: would it cover BT broadband, which offers extra bandwidth to users of its TV service BT Vision? Skype pushes Vodafone ban
At least there’s one clear example where it would apply: Vodafone’s ban on VoIP services for its mobile broadband customers on the cheapest internet deals.
Currently, those with Vodafone packages under £40 a month cannot access VoIP services unless they pay a £15 surcharge.
T-Mobile and Orange also prohibit access to VoIP services that they don’t directly provide.Ofcom’s report seemed to suggest that flagging up such restrictions was the very minimum it would expect. The report warned:
Our stance as a regulator is that any blocking of alternative services by providers of internet access is highly undesirable, because of the potential effect on innovation
“[However] we would be concerned if the blocking of services by mobile operators remained both widespread and persistent, in which case we would need to consider whether the benefits of intervening outweighed the risks"
“You would expect us to be more impatient than Ofcom. In Europe, there's still a huge amount of restrictions,” Jean-Jacques Sahel, head of European regulatory affairs at Skype, told Bloomberg
Skype hopes to use the threat of regulation to in its continuing negotiations with networks.Julia Kukiewicz edits UK consumer site Choose, which compares deals on broadband, and offers comprehensive consumer guides, including how to find the best broadband for downloading.