UK consumers could be faced with a two-speed Internet in the future according to culture secretary Ed Vaizey, who has backed moves for ISPs to charge differently for different content.
British ISPs, like their US counterparts, have been calling for the ability to charge different prices according to the type of content being transmitted. Many ISPs were particularly unhappy about the introduction of BBC iPlayer which was a bandwidth-intensive drain on many ISPs. Now, Vaizey, speaking at an FT telecoms conference in London has thrown a spanner in the works. The culture secretary said that ISPs should be free to charge what they like for traffic.
In his speech, Vaizey argued that if UK companies want to benefit from good quality Internet services then ISPs need to find a new charging model.
He said: "We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want. This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service." He pointed out that ISPs already practise some degree of traffic management to ensure the smooth running of their networks.
It's a thorny issue. The net neutrality debate, has been raging for some time in the US. President Obama has backed the idea of net neutrality but the change in congress earlier this month might need to new moves to adopt a tiered-charging – Republicans are more broadly in favour of abandoning the net neutrality principle.
However, the principle of net neutrality has already been eroded slightly. Earlier this year, Google and Verizon announced plans to work together, treating fixed line traffic differently from mobile traffic.
It's the rapid rise of smartphones that has prompted Vaizey to re-open this debate, mobile operators have admitted that the rise of devices such as the iPhone and iPad have put their networks under pressure. "The introduction of the smartphone has put the networks of some operators under immense strain," Vaizey said. "Cisco predict that mobile data traffic will double every year through to 2014. That will mean 3.6 exabytes of traffic a month - roughly equivalent to 175,000 years of DVD quality video. Meeting this demand will be a global issue and ... the continued delivery of high quality content will therefore require massive investment."
Vaizey, who as culture secretary is ultimately in charge of Internet policy, is clearly thinking along the same lines. However, he argues that in the UK, there are more ISPs competing for business and the market will ensure that there's no unfair discrimination. ""The essential competition we enjoy in Europe and especially in the UK, will be an essential safeguard against unfair discrimination." he said.
The Internet Service Providers Assocation has broadly welcomed the remarks. In a statement it said, "ISPA welcomes the minister's comments that a lightly-regulated, market-based approach should be taken towards internet traffic management. This approach will reassure those who are investing in networks and coming up with new, innovative online business models. ISPA calls on government to adopt a similar light touch regulatory approach to other internet policy issues ... A number of ISPA members already provide consumers with clear information on traffic management practices and we expect to see this extended"