Net neutrality: what the BBC says and what the BBC does

The BBC has been one of the most vociferous defenders of net neutrality – the concept that all internet traffic is treated equally.  However, a couple of deals struck with BT suggest the BBC isn’t as wedded to net neutrality as it likes to claim.

What the BBC says

First, let’s recall what the BBC has said publicly about net neutrality and ISPs discriminating between different types of traffic in the past.

As recently as last October, the BBC’s director of future media and technology, Erik Huggers, wrote a landmark blog, outlining the Beeb’s stance on net neutrality.

“An emerging trend towards network operators discriminating in favour of certain traffic based on who provides it, as part of commercial arrangements, is a worrying development,” Huggers wrote.

“Why? For companies that can pay for prioritisation, their traffic will go in a special fast lane. But for those that don't pay? Or can't pay? By implication, their traffic will be de-prioritised and placed in the slow lane. Discriminating against traffic in this way would distort competition to the detriment of the public and the UK's creative economy.

“The founding principle of the internet is that everyone - from individuals to global companies - has equal access. Since the beginning, the internet has been 'neutral', and everyone has been treated the same. But the emergence of fast and slow lanes allows broadband providers to effectively pick and choose what you see first and fastest.”

And lest we think this was Huggers shooting from the hip on a blog post, the BBC also submitted a response to Ofcom’s net neutrality consultation (PDF) last year, which arrived at the same conclusion.

“The BBC believes that traffic management should only be used at a minimum for technical and legal reasons. In our view, discriminating traffic by content provider or origin will distort competition and deviate from the end-to-end principle which is at the core of the internet.”

What the BBC does

Despite taking a rigid stance against discrimination between different content providers and internet “fast lanes”, the BBC appears fairly relaxed about the situation when it stands to benefit.

For example, content from the BBC iPlayer was used in a 2009 trial of BT Wholesale’s Content Connect service. Content Connect is BT’s new content distribution network (CDN), which effectively puts video content in the “fast lane”, ensuring customers get a smooth video stream from selected broadcasters.

In some ways, there’s nothing new about this: the BBC has worked with CDNs such as Akamai in the past, paying these companies to push video content closer to consumers and easing the burden on networks. However, there is a crucial difference: Akamai has no relationship with end users. BT, on the other hand, has stated publicly that it plans to charge both content providers and consumers for premium services delivered over Content Connect. As Huggers himself stated: “For those that don't pay? Or can't pay? By implication, their traffic will be de-prioritised and placed in the slow lane.”

The BBC told me that it “does not have a commercial relationship with BT Wholesale's Content Connect service”. However, it most certainly does have a commercial relationship with BT Retail – the arm of BT that provides broadband to consumers, and which also delivers BBC iPlayer programmes over its BT Vision IPTV service. How does BT ensure those Vision video streams reach customers smoothly? By using Content Connect.

The BBC (nor any other broadcaster whose programmes are delivered over BT Vision) doesn’t currently pay BT to benefit from these “fast lane” streams. But there is no doubt that this arrangement gives the BBC a commercial advantage over rival broadcasters, who don’t have access to the fast lane. Especially as BT Vision sets aside a dedicated chunk of a customer’s bandwidth when streaming video, meaning someone else in the house trying to stream HD video on a laptop, for example, will likely suffer.

In other words, it’s exactly the “emergence of fast and slow lanes [that] allows broadband providers to effectively pick and choose what you see first and fastest” that Huggers railed against in last October’s blog.

The BBC’s response

When I asked the BBC to comment on this apparent contradiction between its support for net neutrality and its dealings with BT, a spokesman said: “We wish to make BBC iPlayer available over the open internet to platforms and devices on a fair basis, with the aim to ensure pay-TV customers also continue to enjoy a high-quality BBC iPlayer experience.  We keep all deals under review in light of BBC’s strategic priorities and policies, our commitment to an open internet and rapid market developments.”

I have some sympathy for the BBC: net neutrality is a hideously complex topic, and decisions made with the best interests of viewers in mind can sometimes compromise principles. But I’m fairly sure the BBC would be screaming from the rooftops if commercial broadcasters were being handed the kind of competitive advantage it’s currently benefiting from, and it was the BBC being left in the “slow lane”.

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