Net neutrality rules get some clarity

Posted on: 7th November 2023, by Magrathea

Net neutrality regulation, also known as Open Internet Access, exists so that users of the internet can freely access all services on the internet unfettered by commercial preferences to market their own services or other filtering decisions by their internet service provider (ISP).

This isn’t unique to the UK, indeed America also had strong net neutrality rules up until 2018 when Trump’s administration repealed it.  There were reportedly some great demonstrations of feeling about this, with protests and the like.  It appears that many people in the US feel very strongly that the internet must remain open to all, as you would expect!  President Biden claims to be determined to reintroduce the policy and steps are being taken now to make this happen.

Here in the UK, we tend to be a slightly more reserved bunch so I’m not aware of anyone storming the streets during the recent Ofcom review, but perhaps that says more about how little the general public understand about these protections what we risk if we don’t have net neutrality rules in place.

Whilst many say it wouldn’t happen and the industry would self-regulate, it is possible to imagine a scenario where content providers with deep pockets muscle out the small, but often most useful and valuable, providers.  Perhaps more relevant to our sector though is the risk that a vertically integrated ISP could prioritise their own content and services, restricting or slowing access to competing providers.  Although there is a considerable amount of nonsense to be found on the internet, the freedom of choice and the sheer variety of information available to us all is something we would probably only truly value if it became more difficult or expensive to access.

The current regulation arose from legislation that was introduced when we were still part of the EU, and quite clearly online life for most has moved on since then, so it was sensible for Ofcom to instigate a review now.  In fact one of the things they address in the statement is the fact we no longer need to refer to the BEREC guidance and going forward all guidance will be fully contained within Ofcom issued guidance.

The statement is long and detailed so for those of you with particular interest we recommend you study it here along with the updated guidance.

Overall though we are pleased that Ofcom has taken a fairly sensible approach to this one.  They recognise that existing rules are generally working quite well, something you can see reflected in most of the responses they received, so they haven’t proposed any significant changes.  They have however recognised that some clarity on how to apply the rules is required to maintain high levels of innovation and to ensure continued investment and consumer benefit.

Some areas are now much clearer

The key areas of clarification are that ISPs may offer a “premium quality” service, enabling them to sell packages to users with high bandwidth requirements at a higher price than they sell a package to a more typical user, and they provide clarity that most “zero-rated” traffic will be allowed.

Zero rated traffic is any usage that doesn’t count towards a data allowance.  This is generally used for socially responsible data so is generally considered acceptable, but Ofcom have given examples of where this would not be allowed.

And finally, the point that ISPs can create ‘specialised services’ meaning they can optimise specific content.  It is this point that most of our clients will be particularly interested in as it accommodates voice traffic.

Specialised services – a spotlight on telephony

Specialised services differ to ‘general internet access’ and so the rules that heavily restrict traffic management on retail services generally don’t apply to this specific subset of traffic, if certain conditions are met.  Ofcom haven’t previously issued guidance on these services but have now done so and, the key point here, have made it clear that voice calls could be classed as a specialised service (assessed on a case-by-case basis).

Those conditions to be met include the need to have sufficient capacity to support the service without disrupting the quality or availability of the internet access service and optimisation of the traffic is necessary to delivery a certain level of quality.

What will happen now?

It’s far too soon to tell what difference this new guidance will make and how many internet providers will introduce these special categories but we do know, as part of the consultation process, Ofcom discovered a good number of projects that were conceived but not followed through due to perceived net neutrality non-compliance.  They noted that four of those, generated by mobile networks, did not progress due to misinterpreted specialised service rules.

This may be an indicator that there are many innovative ideas waiting on the sidelines but meanwhile, with the whole of the UK migrating towards IP voice solutions, it feels like this is a good time for ISPs to be revisiting their compliance with the rules and taking advantage of this clarity for the good of the consumer and our voice industry.

We see this as an exciting opportunity to remove some concerns over quality of service on future voice offerings whilst simultaneously securing a reliable internet service for all.

The updated guidance can be found here.