Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ofcom launches net neutrality consultation

Following recent developments in the US, Ofcom has today launched a consultation on internet traffic management (the full discussion document is available here). Some commentary from the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones on his blog.

The paper includes this traffic management continuum, echoing the thinking I set out in this recent post:
The main focus here seems to be (quite rightly) on ways to ensure transparency for consumers, touching on the commercial/competition issues I mentioned. The architectural issues (the so-called "flattening of the Internet") I also referred to are addressed later in the document:
"Many online service providers now use what is known as a Content Distribution Network (CDN) to move their content closer to the edge of the internet to prevent the quality of their services being impacted by traffic congestion in the internet core. These networks are best suited to distributing non-real time content services such as video-on-demand and web browsing. The content for these services is distributed and stored by the CDN operator on internet servers situated close to the end-user ISPs’ networks. When consumers request content, it can then be delivered from a local server operated by the CDN provider, rather than a more remote internet server which would require the content to be delivered over the internet core. There are a number of third party CDN providers such as Akamai and EdgeCast. A recent trend has been for larger service providers including Google and Yahoo! to build their own CDNs to deliver their content. In practice most CDNs circumvent only the effects of congestion in the internet core and not in the ISP’s backhaul or access network. Another recent trend has been for some ISPs to provide their own CDN solutions to service providers wanting to avoid congestion in these parts of the internet delivery chain as well as the internet core. These CDN solutions are of particular interest to video-on-demand service providers whose high capacity services are highly vulnerable to network congestion. The investment in and development of CDNs is a major change in the architecture of the internet which is already seeking to deliver service quality by offsetting some of the problems of the ‘best efforts’ approach. To some degree, content distributors will face a choice in the future of whether to invest in CDNs or guaranteed quality of service delivery over ‘edge’ networks. These are starting to become complementary parts of the same process to guarantee quality of service, with the likes of Akamai and EdgeCast now peering directly with some large ISPs to provide a better end-to-end quality of service experience."
According to the exec summary, the debate raises two key questions for Ofcom:
  1. What stance should Ofcom take on any potential discrimination?
  2. What is the best way to deliver consumer transparency?
In relation to no.1, the main concern is to avoid anti-competitive practices. No.2 "may already be an issue for consumers" and the document references Neelie Kroes' view that transparency is "non-negotiable" (see this previous post):
"The European Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, has recently stated that consumer transparency of traffic management is ‘non-negotiable’. We agree and consider that it is critical that consumers are appropriately informed of traffic prioritisation, degradation or blocking policies being applied by their ISP and that they are able to factor these in when making purchasing decisions. Effective consumer transparency requires information to be meaningful to consumers. Simply providing information will not enable consumers to make informed purchasing and switching choices if it is not the right type of information, and is not presented in a way that is useful. We think that it is important that industry works together to find creative and effective solutions for delivering consumer transparency. We recognise that it would be important to track and evaluate the impact of these consumer transparency approaches. However, a failure to provide the transparency required for consumers to make informed choices is likely to increase pressure for introducing potentially more prescriptive policy options provided for by the Revised Framework, such as a minimum quality of service."
...which puts the onus on providers to manage themselves appropriately or face more intrusive regulation which can only be unwelcome? What's particularly insightful in Neelie Kroes' statement is her recognition of the importance of providers being able to innovate, and that differentiation between packages (for example, bronze, silver, gold) is fundamental to this. At the same time this must be balanced by appropriate levels of transparency in service delivery. This is the line in Neelie Kroes' speech that best summed up the quandary facing regulators:
"...over time, we should continue to monitor whether traffic management is a spur to future network investment, and not a means of exploiting current network constraints."
Also a clear recognition that this shouldn't be seen as a problem that can be fixed, but rather an evolving dynamic where the interests of all parties need to be regularly reviewed and protected in as transparent a way as possible.

Update 28 June 2010: EDUCAUSE have published  a useful primer on net neutrality as part of their "7 things you should know about..." series. The scenario on the first page is particularly worth a look. Some commentary from the FT (ISPs face scrutiny on traffic management) on Ofcom's consultation here.

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