Traffic management and 'net neutrality'

  • Start: 24 June 2010
  • Status: Closed
  • End: 09 September 2010

Growth in the use of the internet delivers substantial benefits, but may also require new approaches to traffic management.

The unprecedented degree of connectivity provided by the internet has delivered substantial benefits:

  • consumers are able to access a range of online products and services that would have previously been unimaginable;
  • citizens are able to access news and opinion from many more sources than was possible with traditional media, improving the quality of public debate; and
  • service providers and owners of content are able to develop innovative new applications, exploiting the large addressable market and low barriers to entry intrinsic to the internet.

The resulting growth in the use of the internet does however create a challenge for network operators, who must consider how best to meet demand. They are likely to do so partially by investing in new capacity, and partially by rationing existing capacity. Traffic management tools play an important role, increasing the efficiency with which operators can manage existing network capacity.

The appropriateness of different approaches to traffic management is at the heart of the Net Neutrality debate. Given the controversial nature of this debate, it is important to bear in mind that traffic management is often beneficial. It is commonly used for example to protect safety-critical traffic such as calls to the emergency services. The question is not whether traffic management is acceptable in principle, but whether particular approaches to traffic management cause concern.

It is possible to identify two broad forms of internet traffic management:

  • 'Best-efforts' internet access, under which network operators attempt to convey all traffic on more or less equal terms. This results in an ‘open internet‘ with no specific services being hindered or blocked, although some may need to be managed during times of congestion.
  • Managed Services, under which network operators prioritise certain traffic according to the value they ascribe to it. An example may be the prioritisation of a high quality IPTV service over other traffic. This amounts to a form of discrimination, but one that is normally efficiency enhancing.

Our approach to traffic management recognises the benefits associated with both types of service, and seeks for them to co-exist. Our overall aim is to ensure that consumers and citizens continue to benefit from both innovation in services and investment in networks.

The tools available to achieve this have recently changed, due to revisions in the EU framework and corresponding UK law. These changes enable regulators to enhance consumer protection, by requiring greater transparency as to the use of traffic management by network operators, and to protect the quality of 'best-efforts' internet access by setting a minimum quality of service. This document sets out the approach we would currently expect to adopt if we were to consider using these powers.


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