TalkTalk, BT: we'd put iPlayer in the slow lane
Britain's two biggest ISPs admit that website owners could pay for priority service on their networks
The UK's two biggest ISPs have openly admitted they'd give priority to certain internet apps or services if companies paid them to do so.
Speaking at a Westminster eForum on net neutrality, senior executives from BT and TalkTalk said they would be happy to put selected apps into the fast lane, at the expense of their rivals.
We absolutely could see a situation when content or app providers may want to pay BT for quality of service above best efforts
Asked specifically if TalkTalk would afford more bandwidth to YouTube than the BBC's iPlayer if Google was prepared to pay, the company's executive director of strategy and regulation, Andrew Heaney, argued it would be "perfectly normal business practice to discriminate between them".
"We would do a deal and look at YouTube and look at the BBC, and decide," he added.
When asked the same question, BT's director of group industry policy, Simon Milner, replied: "We absolutely could see a situation when content or app providers may want to pay BT for quality of service above best efforts," although he added BT had never received such an approach.
The ISPs' stance was tacitly backed by regulator Ofcom, which has just completed a consultation on net neutrality. "We see real economic benefit for a two-sided market to emerge, especially for markets such as IPTV," said Alex Blowers, international director of Ofcom.
Blowers insisted ISPs must be transparent with customers about such arrangements.
Public service discrimination
Ofcom's consumer representatives were less enamoured with the prospect of ISPs giving some services preferential treatment. "Public services could be positively discriminated against, especially if they're high bandwidth," said Anna Bradley, chair of the Communications Consumer Panel.
"It may be that we need to consider some sort of 'must carry' obligation," for public-funded services such as the iPlayer and Government-run sites, Bradley added.
Indeed, Government officials struck a note of caution about the entire concept of blocking one site at the expense of another. "I'm a family and I sign up for a two-year contract with my ISP," theorised Nigel Hickson, head of EU and international ICT policy at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
"After 18 months, my daughter comes and knocks on my door and says 'I can't get on Facebook any more' [because the ISP had given preferential access to a rival]."
"Is that acceptable?" asked Hickson. "These questions are at the heart of this debate."
No such thing as neutrality
TalkTalk's Heaney argued that the entire concept of net neutrality had long since evaporated, with varying degrees of traffic management now commonplace among all the leading ISPs. "It's a myth we have net neutrality today - we don't," he said. "There are huge levels of discrimination over traffic type. We prioritise voice traffic over our network. We shape peer-to-peer traffic and deprioritise it during the busy hour.
"If we have a blocking policy customers don't like they vote with their feet, they move," he added.
And the TalkTalk executive urged regulator Ofcom and the EU to refrain from regulating net neutrality. "We don't have a problem, so we shouldn't be considering regulation," Heaney stated. "This is just another business model. It's a legitimate and normal business practice."