Ofcom to review UK's net neutrality framework

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Ofcom has confirmed it plans to review the UK’s net neutrality rules, potentially opening the door for more flexible regulations for mobile and broadband operators.

The communications watchdog now has more flexibility to adjust its policies now that the UK is no longer a member of the EU, which adopted net neutrality legislation in 2015.

These measures forbid service providers from prioritising certain applications beyond standard traffic management measures and from charging content providers for additional fees for the preferential treatment.

UK net neutrality

It was feared such practices would threaten the development of an open Internet and make it more difficult for startups and innovative applications to compete with larger players.

However mobile and broadband operators argue that it unfair that they have to invest in the network infrastructure to support increasingly data intensive applications such as online gaming and streaming from which others profit.

Ofcom is understood to be in the early stages of its review, and it is too early to determine any specific policies that might be changed. However, the regulator suggested there might be room for wiggle room following Brexit.

“Over the course of the next year we are planning to look at the existing framework for net neutrality to ensure we can continue to support innovation, while protecting consumers,” said a spokesperson.

The development comes a week after BT CEO Marc Allera called for greater freedom for operators, arguing that the Coronavirus pandemic had demonstrated the benefits of a more flexible framework.

Flexible framework

EE, and others, have zero rated access to education services during school closures but were forced to do so within existing net neutrality legislation and to incur additional costs. 

Simultaneously, lockdown has also accelerated the adoption of online gaming and streaming services, both of which are becoming increasingly data hungry. 

The biggest spikes on the BT network are when a major game update coincides with a major sporting event such as Amazon Prime’s Premier League coverage. This places significant pressure on telcos to ensure there is sufficient capacity and reliability – but not streamers or platform holders.

Traditionally, television platform holders have had to operate television transmitters and satellite networks but as distribution shifts to IPTV, it is telcos that will provide the underlying infrastructure.

“The problem we face is, allowing access for free to certain websites is incompatible with current net neutrality arrangements,” he said at Enders’ Media and Telecoms 2021 & Beyond conference. “Zero-rating large sites – for us and any other network operator – drives huge data traffic and costs onto networks.

“It is clearer than ever that the way our networks are accessed and used is not equal. But what the pandemic has shown is that there are very good reasons to enable preferential access to certain platforms. And we believe now is time to explore what the future should look like, to enable everyone in the UK to benefit from connectivity and digitisation."

Allera said BT’s ability to support government services would be enhanced if it was able to differentiate its service proposition to serve the needs of multiple users.

“Current net neutrality arrangements also put pressure on networks to sustain the rise and rise of the most popular content and gaming platforms.

“For network owners this is driving considerable extra cost. We’re relied on not only by our customers to deliver the connectivity they need every day, but also by the major content and gaming platforms who rely upon our networks to be blisteringly fast and reliable to deliver their services and content just as they intended. And yet the regulatory pressure and UK market pressure on customer prices is downwards – for all customers.

“Our focus is on being the connectivity partner that can make a difference. We want to be in a better position – for our industry and yours to be in a better position – to help create a better experience for our customers. And if those net neutrality rules are adjusted, it could also help us create the connected, digitally-included UK we all want to see.”

Via The Telegraph

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.