Broadband operators won't tell people lies any more

Major broadband operators in the UK have agreed to sign up to a code which will aim to “provide customers with greater clarity” over the way that data traffic is managed.

BSkyB, BT, O2, TalkTalk, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone will all supply information to the Broadband Stakeholder Group, which is spearheading the initiative, so that traffic management techniques can easily be read and compared by users of both fixed line and mobile broadband.

Although the information is already provided by many of the firms, it will soon be available in one format to enable greater clarity via a Key Facts Indicator table which will be available in June 2011.

The call for greater clarity comes not long after UK internet watchdog Ofcom demanded that ISPs give more clarity over the way that they sell broadband speeds, aiming to clear up the rather murky system which allowed operators to claim speeds of double what is actually on offer.

“Broadband has been clouded with unclear technical terms for years, with some vital information often hidden behind unclear ‘fair-usage policies’,” said thinkbroadband co-founder John Hunt.

“This move by major broadband providers to adopt a standardised approach to describing traffic management should help demystify this area, allowing consumers to compare their options easily and make a more informed choice about which broadband product is best for them.”

Speaking to TechEye, Hunt said the move essentially gives the go-ahead to ISPs to create a two tiered system.

“You could say that it is an amber light rather than a green light as it means that the government doesn’t want to step in and stop such a move, and is not clearly saying ‘go ahead’, but is seeking for the ISPs to be more open with what they are doing.”

He believes that it is certainly within the major ISP brand’s interests to publish the code, despite many objectors to the traffic management plans.

“By pushing it from the start means that they are able to control what is happening,” Hunt said.

“So self regulation is certainly preferential than regulation from Ofcom over the matter, and it gives off a good impression of clarity to the customer straight away, which is also in their interest.”

And with growing concern over the way that traffic is managed by ISPs it appears that the BSG hopes the new code will be welcomed by customers still getting to grips with the way that data traffic can be handled depending on time, usage and other factors.

According to Antony Walker, BSG Chief Executive, the code will help curb animosity towards traffic management by critics, and help customers make more informed decision on subscriptions, with calls from certain quarters for a more considered approach to the way that traffic is managed.

“There has been more heat than light in the debate about traffic management over recent years,” he said. “This commitment to provide clear and comparable information in a common format is very important.”

Of course it may come as a slight surprise with tensions rising over net neutrality, both here and in America, that the UK government and ISPs seem so happy to parade the potential division of the internet in the face of grave concerns that it could become a two-tiered environment where those who pay more money are prioritised.

According to Walker the code does not mean a green light to proceed with such schemes, as it merely provides greater clarity over how traffic management works, stating that “It is not yet clear” if prioritising of – say, video streaming – will happen.

However it may seem to the public that the move has already been okayed with the publication of statistics, even before an EC investigation into best approaches is concluded.

In fact, considering that the BSG is sponsors include a number of the those  involved, such as BSkyB and Virgin Media, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills,  it could be questioned how much involvement the ISPs themselves had in the rules, and whether this was indeed a truly independent initiative.

Many in the industry believe that it is inevitable that a tiered approach will happen to some extent.

“The debate between net neutrality and tiered access is hinged on the issue that tiered access is going to impact net neutrality,” says Frederic Huet, managing director of Greenwich Consulting.

“But at the same time, consumers and businesses alike must recognise that some content is harder to transport than others.

“Services such as streamed video are incredibly bandwidth-hungry and can negatively impact service speed, meaning that browsing, email and messaging, which are much lighter and also generate revenues are slower to access.”

Ultimately, Huet contends, the only alternative is Ofcom regulation, which he believes will stifle competition, innovation and consumer choice as only the large ISP brands will have the resources to adapt, as well as “setting a precendent for internet regualtion which will lead down a more complex, more regualted path.” Which is interesting considering how fit for the cull Ofcom is in the eyes of this Coalition government’s austerity age.