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Analysis: Net neutrality's Atlantic divide

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Analysis: Net neutrality's Atlantic divide
Last week the US telecoms regulator signalled it was prepared to enforce, or at least try to enforce, the principle of net neutrality - the idea that service providers should not interfere with content being delivered over their networks. The prospect of meddling ISPs has also caused a stir in the UK of late - but Ofcom chief Ed Richards has insisted that British surfers should not fret. Digital Spy looks at the two sides of the net neutrality pond.

"That wonderful open and dynamic internet, perhaps the most expansive and liberating technology since the printing press, is in fact under threat," declared Michael Copps, one of five members of the US Federal Communications Commission, at a hearing on net neutrality last Thursday. "Now is the time to add an enforceable principle of non-discrimination to our internet policy statement - a clear, strong declaration that we will not tolerate unreasonable discrimination by network operators and we have in place important polices to make sure that anyone with other ideas isn't going to get away with it."

Copps is not in charge of the regulator - that's Republican chairman Kevin Martin, who has been pretty bullish with service providers too: "The commission will be vigilant in monitoring the broadband marketplace and protecting consumers' access to the internet content of their choice... It is critically important for the commission to take seriously anyone who files a complaint that accuses broadband providers of violating these principles."

The FCC's interest in net neutrality was pricked when users, supported by The Associated Press, found cable giant Comcast was interfering with peer-to-peer file sharing traffic. Early this year the regulator decided to investigate and, though it is unclear whether Comcast will be punished, strong messages have been sent out. Martin made clear that providers would at least have to reveal exactly what traffic management techniques they were using.

Debate over net neutrality has bubbled up in the UK, too, in recent months - notably when BBC technology chief Ashley Highfield warned ISPs off throttling, squeezing, shaping or capping content; and when Virgin Media chief executive Neil Berkett labelled the principle "a load of b****cks".

Berkett's assertion irritated many but, while regretting the expletive, he has largely stuck by it. "We recognise that as more customers turn to the web for content, different providers will have different needs and priorities and, in the long term, it's legitimate to question how this demand will be managed," said a Virgin spokesman, attempting to add measure to the outburst.

The response is a far cry from the situation in the US, where the under-fire Comcast announced plans to co-operate with BitTorrent, the very platform it had been trying to limit. Now the telco is taking a more softly-softly approach by carrying out open tests and planning a "peer-to-peer bill of rights".

In the UK, Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards even lent support - to some extent - to Berkett's cause. In a speech on future prospects for broadband last Wednesday, he drew a line between the UK regulatory situation and that in the US: "The shibboleth of net neutrality should not be allowed to become an obstacle or a distraction to investment in next generation networks in the UK."

Though UK lawmakers may be taking a step back on net neutrality, Richards puts it down to Ofcom's tighter regulation in another area. In the UK, BT is compelled to allow any provider use of its network to provide broadband. Ofcom is laying the groundwork for a similar situation with next-generation networks, though differing technology could make things more complicated.

"(In the US) the focus has been on removing perceived regulatory barriers to investment," said Richards. "This represents a second big strategic choice for the UK – should we insist on competition everywhere or should we follow the Americans and forbear from regulation completely, at least in say areas where cable is present?

"The US forbearance policy essentially removes access rules requiring incumbents to open up their next generation access networks to other service providers."

Richards said a stronger market - always talked up by Ofcom - was the reason we did not have to worry. "The question of paying more for better services, whether traffic prioritisation, higher speeds or higher usage limits, has also been caught up in the net neutrality debate in the US. In part this reflects a slightly atavistic sense that the internet ought to be free and egalitarian in all respects. But it is also in part a response of genuine competitive concern about the emerging vertically integrated duopoly in access networks.

"In Europe we do not have the same limitations on competition. In a more competitive environment, there is less inherent problem with traffic management and prioritisation or with the principle of expecting customers who receive greater benefits to pay more. If network operators get these calculations wrong, consumers will switch to another provider."

In the future, as seen by Edwards, the UK will be waving goodbye to net neutrality soon - if it has not already. The cost of expensive improvements to networks will largely be paid by those who want super-fast internet, he predicted. "My mother only needs 1Mbps, why should she pay for you to have 100Mbps?" he wondered. "Actually, why should I pay for you to have 100Mbps?"

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