The UK doesn't yet need net neutrality regulations

The UK doesn't yet need net neutrality regulations
Neutrality in style and substance. Credit: mindscanner/Shutterstock

The net neutrality debate in the US has ended, at least for now, with the Federal Communications Commission ruling for stricter regulation of telecoms and internet service providers (ISPs) in order to maintain a level playing field. But why hasn't the same debate been had in the UK?

There is an idea in game theory (a branch of economics) called the price of anarchy which tries to represent a measure of how badly a system (such as a ) operates due to the selfish behaviour of those involved in it.

This seems like a rather good way to look at , the debate around which is about how well the internet as a system is able to function in the presence of competition between the ISPs and telecom firms that provide access to it.

For us customers, think of this in terms of the of ISPs – these are the firms that connect individuals, homes, businesses, and institutions to the internet. How they act can be seen as a measure of how well they are able to compete.

For example, the degree to which ISPs use traffic management or "middlebox" network appliances to adjust the traffic flowing through their networks might be a measure of how well or poorly they are able to compete with their direct competitors – other ISPs. The same could be said for the degree to which they may try to play the vertical market – their suppliers and customers – by either reducing their costs for carrying bulky (and therefore expensive) content such as video, or by improving performance for a particular group of users who have preference for a particular service or content such as TV-on-demand (and who may be willing to pay for it).

In the US, the FCC has found it necessary to rule in favour of enforcing neutrality with regulation because there was a lot of this sort of gaming of the market going on. Its ruling stated:

The nature of broadband internet access service has … changed [and] broadband providers have even more incentives to interfere with internet openness today.

The regulations therefore dictate that there is to be no blocking, no throttling, and no fast lanes by ISPs.

In the UK's broadband market, as in Europe, Japan and South Korea, it seems the market is operating properly and so effective competition has reigned in the selfish behaviour of operators – anarchy is working well. In other words, the regulators here have tested the market and found there's a fairly reasonable collection of price/performance points that customers can choose to buy or rent services at. Despite some bleating to the contrary, there doesn't appear to be too much in the way of arbitrary interference from ISPs in the way they treat traffic and content travelling over their networks.

Indeed, in the most populated parts of Europe there are quite a few different ways customers can get : ADSL over the telephone network is most common, with internet over the cable television network and more recently the roll-out of fibre optic connections to street cabinets or directly to the home offered in many cities by more than one provider each. Further options such as the increasingly fast 3G and 4G mobile broadband internet on phones and tablets offer further competition to "keep each other honest".

Having said that, there are certainly aspects to how mobile phone providers treat data on their networks that are not really "neutral" in the same sense, but it would appear most of these are types of that is aimed at maximising the value of the spectrum to the customers (and therefore the operator), rather than deliberately treating different content providers in different ways.

Of course things could change, so regulators keep a close watch on the operations of the market, using frequent detailed traffic measurement reports to make sure things are not too out-of-kilter. An approach that seems to have worked, for the moment.

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Limiting internet congestion a key factor in net neutrality debate

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Mar 05, 2015
Even in the US, the net neutrality issue has been grossly misrepresented.

For example, the Netflix/Comcast case that people point out as an example of Net Neutrality breach was actually about Netflix trying to weasel in more traffic than they had paid Comcast for - through peering ISPs that had unmetered access agreements with Comcast.

These unmetered peering links subsequently got congested when Netflix traffic increased, and Comcast's reaction to the complaints was: "If you want more bandwidth, start paying for it like everyone else. Route your traffic through an ISP that has metered access with us so we can bill you for it, or buy more bandwidth directly from us".

And Netflix refused, went ahead to complain to the FCC and started a public propaganda campaign about net neutrality while they were in negotiations over the price to pressure Comcast.

At no point did they actually throttle Netflix specifically. The slowdown was caused by Netflix itself.

Mar 05, 2015
The unmetered peering agreements are usually bilateral contracts between ISPs who expect to benefit roughly equal amounts because the traffic both ways across the link is approximately symmetric over the long term.

When there's a significant difference in the incoming vs. outgoing traffic, the ISPs prefer to use metered access, because larger amounts of data coming into the network always means they need to run more hardware, use more energy, pay more people, rent more space for servers etc. to route it around.

That's why it's reasonable that those who push the data into the network pay for it. The home customers aren't doing that, because they're paying flat monthly rates almost regardless of how much Netflix they watch, so it's left to the enterprise customers, and through them the actual users to pay.

Net Neutrality advocates call this "double dipping", but it's really just making those who cause the traffic pay the cost of it.

Mar 05, 2015
The more I look into the issue, the more it looks like the US Net Neutrality debate has to do with everything but net neutrality itself.

It appears the FCC is trying to treat the problem of ISPs buying each other out and forming monopolies and cartels by simply laying some limits to how much they can abuse their positions as such - without touching the underlying question of why or how they are able to do so in the first place. By setting these rules they seem to be doing something, while the real issue is swept under the carpet.

Saying "you can't discriminate against data by its source" means practically nothing, and interpreting it too literally would actually make the infrastructure work worse.

But Thomas Wheeler, the current FCC chairman is an ex NCTA/CTIA man himself, so he's got deep ties with the industry.

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