Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, has said that net neutrality will come under regulatory scrutiny this year. He said the scale of deployment of next-generation broadband networks would depend on greater clarity on this issue.
The battle lines have already been drawn: The BBC and BT clashed last year over the bandwidth consumed by its iPlayer catch-up video service, meanwhile leading internet players, including Google, have lobbied hard that premiums charged for preferential treatment would prevent the growth of new sites and impede innovation. Charging for a guarantee of service or, alternatively, throttling some forms of traffic is necessary, say ISPs in order to preserve service levels for all their customers.
Regulators across Europe will be trying to establish a common position by the end of this year. “We will have the power to consider the case for imposing a minimum quality of service on ISPs” said Richards. Ofcom will launch a consultation on its “suggestions” for such a scheme, with the aim of settling its position by the end of the year.
Richards explained several content companies had approached Ofcom pointing out some ISPs were managing their (mainly P2P) services. He said no one had made a formal complaint yet, but he anticipated conflict was unavoidable unless addressed. He said Ofcom had a duty to ensure networks are “as open and neutral as appropriate”, in order to promote consumers' access to the web.
So, in favour of net neutrality? Not necessarily. “Regulatory certainty could determine whether superfast broadband covers 50 to 60 per cent of the country or up to 90 per cent. One of the reasons we regard it as important … is precisely because I think, over a period of years, there is a relationship between investment decisions, deployment [of superfast broadband] and the net neutrality position,” said Richards. “If you are a network operator you need to understand the rules of the game … and what kind of rate of return you can make. It's very important from not only their perspective but the country's perspective. It is one factor that will determine the extent of the deployment.”