How do ISPs communicate their traffic management policies?

25 November 2011, 15:10   By Neil Hawkins

ISPs are under pressure from regulators to be clear with customers about how they block and restrict access to certain types of web traffic.

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How are they doing?

Traffic management 101

Many ISPs manage traffic on their networks, particularly at peak times, so that the majority of users' basic internet use isn't interrupted by the minority of users' bandwidth heavy activities.

In other words, browsing pages and sending and receiving emails could be privileged over P2P or even streaming video which is why choosing an ISP that will deliver a good connection for downloading means checking out traffic management rules.

In some cases, a traffic management policy can also block or very severely restrict specific services or types of traffic.

Pretty much the only example of a complete service block currently is the mobile broadband providers who block the use of VoIP services on some deals.

Severe speed restrictions - 'throttling' - when users exceed an ISP's fair use policy (FUP) are more common.

The BSG code of practice

Since March 2011, BT, Virgin Media and O2 have been signed up to a Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) code of practice on communicating traffic management policies.

The policy, available in full from the BSG site here [pdf], commits the ISPs to describing their policies in an understandable, accessible and comparable way.

The biggest change for consumers is the introduction of a standard Key Facts Indicator (KFI), summarising the traffic management practices the ISPs use for each broadband product they currently market.

After June 2011 when these tables were introduced Virgin Media's explanation of its traffic management policy became even more weighty while BT and TalkTalk hugely improved the specificity of the information they offered on traffic management.

Previously, both were more than a little vague.

"There has been more heat than light in the debate about traffic management over recent years," Antony Walker, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group said.

"This commitment to provide clear and comparable information in a common format is very important. It will not only help to ensure consumers are better informed about the services they buy and use, but will also provide a clearer picture for policy makers of the way in which traffic management is actually used in the UK market."

Criticism of the BSG rules

The fact that ISPs, off their own backs, agreed a set of rules to communicate traffic management set alarm bells ringing for some technology commentators immediately.

"Transparency should not be used as a tool to restrict consumers choice of accessing content, applications and services over the Internet nor discriminate against certain applications, services or content," said Robert Hammond, Head of Digital Communications at Consumer Focus.

Ofcom has also expressed concern.

"The technical nature of the KFI means that it will not by itself provide information which is accessible and understandable for all consumers," the regulator said.

"For the current self-regulatory approach to be effective, ISPs need to consider how best to provide such information."

Ofcom rules

The regulator made those comments in a statement on net neutrality [pdf] released in November 2011.

In that document, Ofcom say that they want broadband providers to follow a set of minimum standards at the point of sale.

All broadband providers, fixed-line and mobile must in future provide information on the average speed a consumer can expect to realistically achieve via their connection.

ISPs must provide details of any traffic management policy that affects a particular type of traffic or activity, such as the slowing down of bandwidth hungry activities during peak times as well.

"If a service does not provide full access to the internet, we would not expect it to be marketed as internet access," the regulator said, although it's not at all clear a) what "not full access" means and b) how Ofcom plan to enforce that marketing rule.

Rather than dish out any specific rules or regulations to ensure those pronouncements are carried out, though, Ofcom has chosen to wag its finger at the UK's broadband providers.

Rather than be seen wading into the broadband market and forcing ISPs to do what it wants, it wants to see competition between providers induce more transparency.

Even so, it is threatening to introduce minimum standards if necessary.

If broadband providers don't step up to the mark and deliver what it wants the regulator said it, "may use its powers to introduce a minimum level of consumer information under the revised European framework".

Is more information useful?

Beyond this argument is another one: is asking, or forcing, broadband providers to offer more information on the way they manage networks really helping the end users?

After all, the vast majority aren't going to read through all that information and we're not yet at a stage where certain providers are privileging services from particular companies in return for kickbacks and the privileges given to certain traffic types are pretty minimal.

Maybe. On the other hand, since BSG information was introduced we've seen Orange start to offer completely unlimited connections - who expected that?

Net neutrality

Yet beyond the 'why bother?' debate is yet another, even more fundamental question: should any traffic management be allowed?

For the purposes of this article - and from the point of view of the industry regulator, Ofcom - we've taken it as read that traffic management is an unavoidable part of the UK's internet weather, we'd just prefer that it was sunny rather than rainy or, as Ofcom put it:

"The question is not whether traffic management is acceptable in principle but whether particular approaches to traffic management cause concern."

However, we should note that this is far from being an accepted principle. Net neutrality campaigners argue that all content must be treated in the same way to prevent big companies effectively controlling the net.

If a big content provider like YouTube could pay ISPs to privilege their service, for example, it would give them a huge advantage over competitors and mean smaller players would never be able to get started.

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