Ofcom sets out new guidance for net neutrality

29 October 2023 11:33   By Lyndsey Burton

Ofcom has published a statement on net neutrality, relaxing some of the rules, whilst still ensuring a neutral net.

Following a review of net neutrality that ran from September 2021, Ofcom has published updated guidance on how Internet Service Providers can comply with the law.

While the law itself hasn't changed, Ofcom's update more clearly sets out how broadband and mobile providers can better adapt to changing technologies.

This includes the development of premium packages and specialised services, traffic management to avoid network congestion, and zero-rating certain content.

net neutrality
Credit: Carlos Amarillo/Shutterstock.com

Ensuring a neutral net

The 2021 review into net neutrality aimed to look at whether the existing rules were restricting the ability of service providers to adapt to changing technologies.

For example, because net neutrality law means service providers must treat all data equally, this could restrict their ability to innovate and develop new services.

Vodafone provide one example of this when they talk about network slicing - this is where network bandwidth is effectively separated out with different speed settings designed for a particular use, such as driverless cars.

We also saw zero-rating during the Covid-19 pandemic, where many mobile providers allowed customers access to NHS and certain health and money websites without using up their data allowance.

However, prior to the updated guidance from Ofcom, these examples would have been, and were, in contravention of net neutrality rules that ensure all network traffic is treated equally.

New guidelines

While Ofcom hasn't, and can't, update the UK's legislation on net neutrality, it can update the guidance that helps Internet Service Providers ascertain how they can interpret the law.

Effectively, this means the way Ofcom monitors and ensures compliance with net neutrality law has been relaxed, making it clearer to service providers that they can:

  • Offer premium broadband or mobile packages with different speed settings. An example of this would be a package for gamers with lower latency.
  • Develop new specialised services (e.g. network slicing), which could include applications such as remote surgery or driverless cars
  • Use traffic management to help mitigate network congestion during peak hours
  • Offer zero-rated mobile data packages, which could include providing free access to certain websites offering public health information, such as the NHS

New guidance from Ofcom also sets out how broadband and mobile providers can ensure customers are able to access emergency services, parental control settings, and are protected from harmful content including scams.

Other net neutrality rules, such as those dealing with charging content providers for delivering their traffic, encroach too much on legislation for Ofcom to reinterpret, and so would be a matter for the Government and Parliament.

Next steps

Despite this updated guidance giving broadband and mobile providers much more flexibility in terms of how they approach packages and services, some are still calling for more to be done.

Vodafone suggests net neutrality shouldn't be managed by legislation at all, but changed into a code of practice entirely regulated by Ofcom.

They argue the problem with legislation is that it's only updated every ten years, while current technology is now advancing at a much faster pace. This therefore, holds the sector back, where a more relaxed approach could enable quicker innovation.

However, net neutrality advocates also argue relaxing rules too much could lead to innovation actually being stifled, with those who can pay given a faster lane to consumers, while new companies are unable to gain visibility.


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