Improving traffic management transparency

24 November 2011

Ofcom today set out the steps it expects Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to take to ensure customers are aware how internet traffic is being managed on their networks.

Traffic management is used by ISPs to deal with congestion by slowing down or accelerating the flow of traffic over the internet. In general it is beneficial, and is used for example to protect safety-critical traffic such as calls to the emergency services. But it can cause concern, if for example it is used by ISPs to target competing services, in a manner which is not visible to consumers.

Although ISPs already provide some consumer information on their use of traffic management, Ofcom believes it currently does not go far enough and needs to be made clearer and easier to understand.

If improvements are not made, Ofcom may use its powers to introduce a minimum level of consumer information under the revised European framework. This framework was implemented into UK law in May 2011 and it contains a new policy objective to promote Net Neutrality.

Improving consumer information

In March 2011 the UK's largest ISPs signed up to a voluntary Code of Practice which requires each one to produce a comparable table of traffic management information called a Key Facts Indicator (KFI). These were launched in June 2011.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a concept based on the internet being a level playing field where all web traffic is treated equally.

Why is it in the news?

Supporters argue that 'net neutrality' needs to be adopted to counter the increasing use of traffic management techniques by network operators and ISPs. They say these techniques will lead to discrimination between different traffic types.

What is traffic management?

ISPs and network operators use traffic management tools to restrict or ration traffic on their networks or to give priority to some types of traffic over others. It is also known as traffic shaping or throttling.

Why do they do this?

Access to the internet is becoming increasingly congested. More of us are online and services that require a large amount of bandwidth, such as streamed video or gaming, are growing in popularity. At the same time network operators only have a finite capacity of bandwidth. Traffic management tools allow them to handle traffic more efficiently, to prioritise traffic by type, to charge for guaranteed bandwidth or to block or degrade the quality of certain content.

How does it work?

There are a variety of ways. Priority can be given to specific services at peak times -video streaming or web surfing are given precedence over peer-to-peer (P2P) and file sharing networks, for example. Individual consumers can also be targeted- some customers may have their speeds temporarily reduced at peak times if they have been using the internet more than their package allows.

What is Ofcom doing?

Ofcom has set out steps it expects ISPs to take to ensure customers are aware how internet traffic is being managed on their networks. If ISPs fail to deliver easy to understand information for all consumers, Ofcom will review the possibility of intervening more formally in order to ensure that there is sufficient transparency as to the use of traffic management by network operators.

 

While Ofcom welcomes this initiative, this information is likely to be of most use to technically savvy consumers, and a challenge still remains around how to communicate it to consumers as a whole.

Ofcom has set out a basic level of information which ISPs should provide to their customers at the point of sale including:

  • Average speed information that indicates the level of service consumers can expect to receive;
  • Information about the impact of any traffic management that is used on specific types of services, such as reduced download speeds during peak times for peer-to-peer software; and
  • Information on any specific services that are blocked, resulting in consumers being unable to run the services and applications of their choice.

Terms used by ISPs to describe their services should also be clear. In particular, a consumer paying for 'internet access' should expect this to include the full range of services available over the open internet. ISPs should not use the term 'internet access' to refer to a service that blocks lawfully available internet services.

Ofcom is therefore encouraging industry, alongside the Broadband Stakeholder Group and consumer stakeholders, to further develop their self-regulatory initiative.

'Transparent information'

If ISPs fail to deliver easy to understand information for all consumers, Ofcom may consider using its powers and set out detailed information requirements.

Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards said: "The internet plays an important role in the lives of citizens, consumers and industry. We now expect and depend on access to the content and services it has to offer.

"How ISPs control access to the internet affects us all and it is important that we are able to understand how our access might be restricted.

"Ofcom is now looking to the ISPs to ensure that transparent information is available, and will look to intervene if it does not see improvements".

Protecting innovation

Consumers currently have open access to a large number of services, and ISPs have access to a large number of consumers. This has created an environment where new ideas and services can be freely launched, resulting in a high degree of innovation and considerable benefits for citizens and consumers.

If Ofcom thought in the future that this innovation was under threat from traffic management - for example by leaving insufficient network capacity for some services - then Ofcom could use its powers to impose minimum quality of service levels on ISPs.

However, any intervention to introduce a minimum quality of service level would need to be carefully considered, to avoid unintended consequences for innovation and investment.

Ofcom is also concerned that innovation could be hindered if providers blocked competing services or used traffic management in a manner that discriminates against them.

Ofcom's current view is that it should be able to rely on the operation of market forces to address this issue, since historic attempts to restrict internet access to 'walled gardens' have not proved to be sustainable in the face of competition from open services.

This does however reinforce the importance Ofcom places on consumer transparency.

Read Ofcom's statement on net neutrality