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In the face of widespread debate about net neutrality and increasing consumer unrest about how Fair Use Policies and traffic management affects their broadband experience , the Broadband Stakeholder group (BSG) and seven of the UK’s largest ISPs have published a new Voluntary Code of Practice regarding broadband transparency. This new code of practice will be piloted by BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, O2, Three and Vodafone throughout 2011, with review and potentially further adoption by other ISPs in early 2012.

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Commenting on the new code Antony Walker, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, said:
“There has been more heat than light in the debate about traffic management over recent years. This commitment to provide clear and comparable information in a common format is very important. It will not only help to ensure consumers are better informed about the services they buy and use, but will also provide a clearer picture for policy makers of the way in which traffic management is actually used in the UK market.

Consumers need to be able to make informed choices about the services they buy and policy makers need to be able to make informed decisions about the policy and regulatory framework they set. This new commitment provides an essential building block for getting both of these things right.”

The code comprises three key elements. It requires a commitment to provide more information to consumers about traffic management practices and why they are required. It also sets out an agreed set of best practice principles which will govern how ISPs communicate this information to consumers, ensuring the information is understandable, appropriate, accessible, current, comparable and verifiable. The third element requires the signatories to commit to publishing a Key Facts Indicator (KFI) table summarising the traffic management practices for each broadband product they market in a consistent format. Its purpose is to make comparison easier for consumers.

Entanet has frequently stated that we are advocates of net neutrality and further believe that ISPs should be open and transparent about their approach to traffic management so that consumers can make informed decisions about the service they take. Entanet’s CTO, Steve Lalonde, recently commented in an ISP Review article about the code stating: “We’re pleased to see that the biggest consumer focused ISPs are taking a lead in making things clearer to their customers, rather than having such a requirement imposed on them directly by Ofcom. The principle of ensuring that consumers are aware of the potential constraints that may be put on their use of a connection with particular providers is necessary. However, introducing some standards based consistency to what/how information is presented is going to be difficult. It will be interesting to see how transparent these providers are in describing their traffic management policies.”

At Entanet, we believe that all traffic should be treated equally. We have been using traffic management to ensure fair but consistent availability of services and bandwidth for all customers since November 2009. This is vitally important because our partners depend on our network to deliver a consistent performance to their customers. To ensure that everyone understands exactly how we manage network traffic, we provide an explicit explanation of our approach in our product documentation. This policy is freely available for our partners to view on synergi, our interactive partner portal. The information is also available to consumers on the Thinkbroadband website. It is also important to note that Entanet does not promote any of its broadband services as providing ‘unlimited’ bandwidth or speeds.

Without regulation, introducing consistent standards to ensure easy comparison of this information will not be easy. Whilst these seven providers and the BSG are working towards a common goal, they are still competing and likely to be sensitive about the information they provide and how it compares against their competitors. Without regulation will this just lead to more confusion for consumers?

Additionally, there are no details regarding what will happen if a signatory doesn’t abide by these principles, or about how it will be policed and by whom. The code also doesn’t address the issue of net neutrality. Despite providing more network transparency (which is undoubtedly a good thing) there are still no commitments to avoiding a two tiered Internet which would see deals between content providers and ISPs to deliver certain traffic as priority.

Whilst we applaud these ISPs for taking the first steps to clarify this information for consumers before it’s imposed on them, the review period throughout 2011 is likely to highlight several potential flaws in the current code that will need to be ironed out before introduction to additional ISPs in 2012. But at least it’s a step in the right direction and a positive move for consumers that we believe will help them to compare providers more easily. We will however, be watching the progress of this pilot carefully over the coming months.

UPDATED – 18th March 2011

Further good news for net neutrality advocates was announced yesterday when Sir Tim Berners-Lee agreed to assist the BSG and ISPs in refining their new voluntary Code of Practice.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee echoed Entanet’s concerns that whilst we commend the code it also needs to address the issue of net neutrality, commenting: “While transparency about traffic management policy is a good thing, best practices should also include the neutrality of the [internet]. The web has grown so fast precisely because we have had two independent markets, one for connectivity, and the other for content and applications.”

Have your say!

What do you think about the new voluntary code of practice regarding traffic management? Do you think it will help consumers to evaluate and compare providers or do you think it will be difficult to manage and police? Let us know your thoughts below by leaving us a comment.

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