Despite all their protestations to the contrary, we now have empiric evidence showing that European telcos do indeed regularly strangle Voice over IP and P2P traffic emanating from their OTT and ISP rivals. This throttling - the deliberate blocking and disruption of the delivery of voice and file-sharing traffic - is often cloaked under the guise of "traffic management" systems and a new report from Europe's regulators says the practice is "commonplace". Martyn Warwick reports.
The Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC), an umbrella organisation comprising of members of the individual telecoms regulatory bodies of each of the 27 member states of the European Union, has been analysing traffic management statistics and other data from 400 fixed and mobile telcos across the length and breadth of Europe.
It's findings come as no real surprise - for years now there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that telcos routinely delay and disrupt OTT traffic and content traveling over their networks - but it is instructive to find out just how widespread and institutionalised the practice has become.
The BEREC report says, "The most frequently reported traffic management practices are the blocking and/or throttling of peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic, on both fixed and mobile networks, and the blocking of Voice over IP (VoIP) traffic (mostly on mobile networks, usually based on specific contract terms). When blocking/throttling is implemented in the network, it is typically done through deep packet inspection (DPI)."
The report also finds that different telcos in different countries uses different rationalisations to validate their throttling proclivities. Thus some 25 per cent of the EU's telcos say they have to practice DPI on their networks to ensure that spam is minimised, congestion avoided and that the network remains 'secure'. However, the fact is that as a result of these regimes VoIP and P2P traffic is delayed or partially or completely blocked and this can hardly be coincidental.
Other players are somewhat less disingenuous about their activities and admit that they apply data capping and so-called "fair usage" limits because they offer "specialist telephony or TV services' for individual clients in tandem with 'public and best effort' broadband access services.
BEREC says it will now validate, consolidate and categorise the data supplied by the telcos and will publish its complete findings this summer.
Additionally, it will report on the competitive issues surrounding the net neutrality debate and publish a single definitive set of "guidelines on the minimum quality of service requirements."
As was evident from the ambivalent attitude of most of the network operators at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (where the world's big OTT players were conspicuous by their absence) the establishment still hasn't come to terms with the upstarts and continues to flounder and bluster as it tries to defeat them whilst knowing, deep in its guts, that the new players are strong, important and are never going to go away, that the old order has changed forever and that in the end some sort of working accommodation with the enemy will have to be reached.
The net neutrality debate has riven the US with telcos demanding that OTT players and content providers must pay their fair share of the cost of network maintenance whilst social networking companies and others point out that subscriber payments to ISPs should be enough to allow equality of access to all content and is not for a service in which some content is prioritised because of self-serving agreements between ISPs and content producers.
Over in Europe, the debate has been rather less strident but equally divisive. Here we have the "Framework for Electronic Communications Directive" which delineates the obligations for the telecoms regulators of the member States to must ensure they "take all reasonable measures... to promote the interests of the citizens of the European Union by... promoting the ability of end-users to access and distribute information or run applications and services of their choice".
Meanwhile, the Universal Services Directive (USD) states that ISPs must provide existing and potential subscribers with "comparable, adequate and up-to-date information for end-users on the quality of their services" and "transparent and up-to-date" details on tariffs and the provision of "terms and conditions" of service that are written in a straightforward and easily understandable manner rather than the current convoluted small print legalese that would baffle a coterie of lawyers never mind an ordinary punter wanting a broadband access connection.
BEREC adds and emphasises that the provision of transparent, accurate, timely, understandable, clear and concise information about the quality of service and any "traffic management" restrictions that will be applied to a subscriber's Internet connection is a "fundamental" right and vital if net neutrality is to be achieved.
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