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A modern internet needs modern rules


Ever been trapped in tailbacks at rush hour? Or had to stand squashed up against someone’s armpit on your morning commute? When too many people do something at the same time, it can cause congestion.

It can be the same on the internet, too. If there’s too much traffic at a particular time or in a particular area – and if not properly managed – these journeys can slow down or disrupt your experience.

The internet is an amazing resource, but capacity is not unlimited. As the owner of the UK’s most established networks, BT Group prizes its ability to manage resources to deliver the best customer experience. To do this, it helps to ensure the right traffic is moving on the right routes at the right time.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Simultaneous live sport streams, a huge new update for an online multiplayer game, a major console software update and the dropping of a popular new series on a streaming channel can all happen at the same time. And we’ll see even bigger volumes of data hit the web in the future. The idea of a Metaverse is growing while traditional broadcast TV is increasingly turning to the internet for delivery.

Huge traffic peaks can impact customers, ranging from the inconvenient, such as a buffering football match or a slow download, to the consequential. A glitchy video interview could cost someone a shot at their dream job. The loss of a connection disrupts remote learning.

To resolve this, new models are required to maintain the levels of quality and experience that all customers should expect.

So what’s getting in the way?

Part of the answer lies in a complex set of regulations called ‘net neutrality’. The principles behind them, to guarantee an open internet for all customers and treat all information on the internet the same, were first set out 20 years ago.

Over the past two decades, what we can do online and how we all use the internet has changed dramatically. Just ‘Ask Jeeves’…

BT continues to invest to grow capacity and expand our networks. But we know that, at peak times,  just a handful of companies can be responsible for a huge proportion of the traffic they carry. If I look across any other industry I can name, the more a resource is used, the bigger a contribution is made. Heavier vehicles are legally obliged to contribute more to road maintenance. Bigger parcels cost more to post.

But under net neutrality rules, all traffic must be treated equally. That means a business can send any volume of traffic, at any time of day, in almost any way they want, and quote ‘net neutrality’ to deny any obligation to do different.

We do not believe that the rules were installed to protect the largest companies, and it certainly shouldn’t be the job of a network or customers to foot the bill for inefficient practices.

That’s why BT Group is one of a growing number of companies across the world calling for stronger rights to demand efficient use of the modern web.

And that’s why Ofcom have launched a consultation into these rules today.

What needs to change?

We believe every online journey should be possible. Whatever the destination. And at any time of any day. We’ll be putting detailed evidence into Ofcom’s consultation, but there are some simple principles that need to be tackled to achieve that.

  1. Content should be delivered efficiently
    Companies don’t despatch a single lorry for every unique online order – they group deliveries into a single vehicle because it’s logical, efficient and economical to do so. BT is in the business of delivering digital, not physical, parcels but we believe the same principles should apply. We have solutions that can help the largest businesses to be more efficient online and we should be supported to be able to use them.
  2. Not all content is time sensitive
    We wouldn’t expect a 25-lane motorway to be built to Land’s End to cope with Bank Holiday traffic for only eight days a year. Yet that’s the equivalent of what we have to do digitally under current rules. By prioritising content according to when it’s needed, we won’t waste investment to create excess capacity that’s not needed most of the year and can ensure the customer gets a better experience.
  3. UK businesses should be able to benefit from innovation
    Networks can be configured for specific customer needs but it remains unclear which services are allowed under net neutrality rules. An obvious example is zero-rating – removing costs to access certain content – because under net neutrality rules one website shouldn’t be prioritised over another. Yet during the pandemic, this was how we enabled free access to education resources. In the future, there will be many new opportunities to provide bespoke support for customers, but we don’t want network innovations stifled because there’s no certainty they can be brought to market.

What are we doing about it?

Our investment continues to keep up with traffic growth so people can continue to rely on our networks. But, challenges are emerging, and with significant quantity and quality of content moving online in the future, capacity requirements are still needed. Without change, our investment will increasingly get sucked up into meeting the capacity needs of the largest players, leaving less for other priorities, such as expanding infrastructure to digitally enfranchise more people.

By evolving net neutrality laws, we’re not looking to throw out protections. Far from it. We’re asking for a level playing field to negotiate improved efficiency, better content co-ordination and the ability to ensure the heaviest of traffic loaders don’t impact everyone else’s online experience.

It is not sustainable, resource efficient or economically viable to do otherwise.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @marcallera

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