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Posted on April 1st, 2011 by Barry Collins

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

BBC iPlayer would I like

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.”

BT VisionThe 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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14 Responses to “ Net neutrality: what the BBC says and what the BBC does ”

  1. Jason Says:
    April 1st, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I love the BBC, but it is the voice of the government in the final analysis- so as the PSB why shouldn’t it be guaranteed a place in the bandwidth? Let’s be honest, there is a lot of home grown good programming that comes out of the BBC, and as long as you don’t watch it live on IPTV it is effectively free.

  2. Wally Ballou Says:
    April 1st, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    “Hideously complex”? As Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself so eloquently put it: “Net neutrality is this: if I pay for a certain level of connectivity, and you pay for an equal or greater level, then we should be able to communicate at that level.” Period.

    Where does “hideously complex” come in?

  3. MR Says:
    April 1st, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Like Jason I’m a big fan of Auntie, particularly the web arm that seems to have stolen a real march in the entertainment tech race, and on a shoe string budget.

    I’ve read Barry’s piece through twice now and I have to say, while it doesn’t sit well that one of my fave content providers and defenders of the neutrality faith isn’t as evangelical as I might have imagined; they do simply appear to be covering all the bases incase the worst comes to pass.

    I can’t fault them for that.

  4. Barry Collins Says:
    April 1st, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Wally – here’s a brief example of the complexity of the issue.

    Most, if not all, of the ISPs apply traffic management/shaping to some degree. P2P is a popular target for the mainstream ISPs.

    So, for example, the BBC was effectively forced to switch from P2P downloads on iPlayer to straight HTTP downloads because too many ISPs were choking downloads.

    Some ISPs excepted iPlayer traffic from their P2P traffic management, others didn’t. Were those ISPs that did discriminating? Were they unfairly favouring the iPlayer over other P2P video services – even though it was arguably in the best interests of Licence Fee payers?

    As for the BBC on BT Vision – should it withhold iPlayer streams from BT, just because it’s ideologically opposed to “fast” and “slow” lanes? Should BT Vision customers be made to “suffer” because of BT’s choice of traffic management technology?

    They are not simple, black and white arguments. That’s the point I was trying to make.

    Barry Collins

  5. Jason Says:
    April 1st, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I can see that the BBC is in a difficult position as a government PSB, the BBC will be damned if they do or don’t.

    To my mind the iplayer was an innovation, and as it is rolled out as a worldwide service then it will only reduce P2P traffic, since there will be less torrent. IP providers moan whatever happens and sometimes forget they aren’t the content providers, only the vehicle for that content.

    If the BBC was to stand up to IP’s then I would support that, although I imagine Sky would not- so in the end all the BBC can do is innovate and ride the waves of public opinion that is formed, in large part, by competing media that wish the BBC no good will.

  6. Lenmontieth Says:
    April 2nd, 2011 at 1:00 am

    As a publicly owned entity, I never understood the “business” modelling of the BBC.
    Having a monopoly on the “Air Waves” seems to have blinded their vision of progress and future.
    Unfortunately for BBC, they are now stuck in the air waves, while others are in progress of Optical Fibre Networking to super speeds.
    The BBC have not learned from hindsight either.
    My parents house was fitted with Rediffusion CABLE TV/RADIO in the Mid to Late 1950’s. The picture was good at the time with no aerial problems.
    So why did the BBC not see the implications when Fibre Optics came along?
    Could the Licence Fee and Know-How not be used to roll out Opti Cable?
    This would have freed up the very crowded air waves and ensured a better service.

    Not only do we have to pay for the licence fee (”Tax”) we may have a tiered delivery cost: as well as an ISP bill.

    Remember the tale of the Golden Goose?

  7. James Waldrop Says:
    April 2nd, 2011 at 5:08 am

    Is net neutrality the defining debate of our generation or just a big distraction. I’m leaning towards a big distraction. I am more familiar with the issue in the US rather than the UK, however.

  8. Gareth Says:
    April 2nd, 2011 at 9:38 am

    There is no contradiction in the BBC’s position. The BBC, just like most net neutrality advocates is against “paid prioritization” which is implemented by slowing “non-prioritized” traffic down.

    CDNs, on the other hand, as well as speeding up the video provider’s traffic, reduce demand on the internet transit traffic, thus speeding up everyone else as well (i.e. use of a CDN effectively adds additional capacity to the internet).

  9. Gareth Says:
    April 2nd, 2011 at 10:15 am

    As for your example about P2P, why should ISPs be allowed to use DPI to determing what traffic is important anyway? I should be able to use my internet connection for whatever I like, whether it be for 100 GB per month of video downloads, 100 GB per month of P2P or 100 GB of picture uploads to flikr.

    We already see the collateral damage from such P2P policies in the Roger’s Canada WOW issue. Blizzard are lucky to receive attention because they are such a large company. Many smaller software vendor’s caught in the same position won’t have the resources to prove and get resolution to the blocking issue from the ISP.

    The ISPs should only be allowed to use IP priorities defined by either the customer or provided at the ISP’s network edge (defined in the DiffServ field in the IP header).
    If upload bandwidth is truly a bottleneck (which is why I assume P2P is “throttled”), then ISPs should meter/cap upload bandwidth in a non-protocol/non-application specific way.

  10. scooter91170 Says:
    April 7th, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Surely it’s a a case of damned if they do and damned if they don’t. BBC would be getting berated for not ensuring BT Vision customers were getting the same service as BSkyBs and VMs?

    So by ensuring that BT Vision’s customers are getting the best service they can provide, all non-paying customers (BT Vision here) also benefit.

    The independent broadcasters have the right to chose how they wish their services to go, something the BBC never has, under it’s charter of providing to all UK residents. It has to provide the best means possible.

  11. marcus sparticus Says:
    April 7th, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Lol, The BBC have held this country to ransom for sixty years by imposing the Television license to all householders. As this imposition in affect stops people from legally accessing all the free channels without criminalising them, In my opinion I think it’s time for the BBC to go pay per view and stop criminalising innocent people who must by law pay for their national propaganda machine. Neutrality should cover all means of digital information not just the Net.

  12. Philippa Says:
    April 8th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    “So why did the BBC not see the implications when Fibre Optics came along?
    Could the Licence Fee and Know-How not be used to roll out Opti Cable?”

    If they had gone into the hardware business as well, the screams from News International, the Daily Mail and the anti-BBC voices inside the Tory party would have been loud and long.

    In any case that degree of investment is almost certainly beyond the BBC’s purse.

    As for what the Beeb says and does: it is possible to be in favour of net neutrality, but adapt your practice to the world yo live in.

  13. Carl Waring Says:
    April 19th, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Jason in post #1 wrote…”but it is the voice of the government in the final analysis”.

    What a load of rubbish. The BBC is and always has had to be IMPARTIAL in its news reporting. So no, it is not the “voice of the govt.” at all.

  14. ltwf Says:
    April 20th, 2011 at 9:49 am

    the BBC IS the voice of govt

    just so long as it’s the labour party who are the govt


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