Net Neutrality Saga Continues

Ofcom set to review UK’s Net neutrality laws in 2021

Ofcom recently confirmed that it will review the UK’s current Net neutrality laws over the course of 2021. As part of that process, the telecommunication regulator will be free to create a new framework following the UK’s split from the EU.

A post-Brexit assessment is a good opportunity for Ofcom to amend laws so that they meet the needs of UK, rather than EU, consumers. But the change in the UK’s status was probably not the main reason for the watchdog’s plans. Ofcom’s decision came less than a week after a blog post by Marc Allera, in which the CEO of BT’s consumer brands said that the current Net neutrality arrangements are detrimental to network operators.

But what is Net neutrality? The term, also known as open Internet, is used to describe the principles of fair online usage. Proponents argue that it gives power to Internet users, as they have ultimate control over what they can see and do online. The approach allows them to access all legal online content equally and freely without the interference of Internet service providers (ISPs).

By law, ISPs must treat all network traffic equally. This means they can’t block access, throttle certain sorts of traffic or manage traffic for commercial advantage. They can take reasonable measures to ensure the smooth running of their networks and can only block sites and use throttling in emergency situations. Chile was the first country in the world to add Net neutrality laws into its legislation in June 2010, followed by the Netherlands two years later.

Over the following decade, Internet usage has skyrocketed, thanks to innovations in banking and finance, online shopping, home entertainment and of course, social networking. According to Mr Allera, the most popular services on EE’s 5G network are YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and Instagram. During the lockdown, these were some of the public’s favourite services, driving 60% to 70% of traffic on the operator’s fixed-line and mobile networks.

This is where the problem lies, because 10 years on, there are concerns that the current Net neutrality rules are biased against ISPs and network operators, and that they don’t take into account the huge investment needed to enable networks to accommodate today’s Internet traffic. Since the first lockdown, many ISPs have reported a surge in online traffic as Britons spent most of their time at home. Although lockdown is only a temporary measure, Mr Allera mentioned that Amazon Prime’s livestreaming of Premier League football over the Christmas period set a record traffic peak of 21 Tbps.

Network providers are under constant pressure to provide more data at faster speeds. But data traffic management, network upgrades and further network expansion all cost money. And when you throw in heavy regulation it becomes clear why many network operators feel they’re getting a raw deal.

There’s an argument that Net neutrality laws prevent network operators from being able to earn appropriate revenue for the service they provide. In his post, Mr Allera said that network access isn’t equal, and he’s right. The practice of zero-rating apps, allowing people to access an online service without being charged for the data used, is an example of this. Although this is implemented by ISPs, it shows that there’s some level of inequality in accessing certain websites, even with the existence of Net neutrality rules.

Don’t get me wrong: network operators earn billions of pounds in revenue even in the current climate, and the principles behind Net neutrality are sound. If we start to prioritize specific websites over others, we risk creating a two-tier Internet service that favours the bigger players and inhibits the growth of smaller ones. This could prevent the growth, innovation and aspiration of smaller companies.

Any review to the laws doesn’t necessarily mean that the rights of users are at risk. But it does mean that the laws governing fair access could be updated so they’re more in line with modern Internet usage. At our Predictions event in October 2020, Mr Allera said that customers are using 50% more data every year and yet they expect the price to stay the same. He noted that if people were using 50% more gas or electricity, they’d expect to pay more (see Predictions Week Video Highlights: Marc Allera, BT).

That’s a fair comparison, but I can’t help but wonder if ISPs are partly to blame. They’ve gone to great lengths to keep their prices low in a bid to gain market share. As a result, many UK customers have an ingrained expectation that the cost of Internet services will not, and should not, increase.

If the pandemic has taught consumers anything, it’s just how important Internet access is. It’s been a lifeline in troubled times, so maybe it’s time we paid what it’s truly worth.