The social media channels have been abuzz with debate about net neutrality and the comments of Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Communications and Creative Industries. His view that trying to prevent service providers from tinkering with traffic maybe akin to King Canute has more than a little merit. A cursory read of Samknows own report into the quality of broadband (rather than the Ofcom report based on the same data) begins to shed light on the range and depth of techniques service providers use to manage their customer’s use.

Being a supporter of the principal of a neutral internet and accepting that it may be very difficult to achieve are not necessarily mutually exclusive positions – in fact its probably realistic rather than idealistic.

I would go further – trying to create rules which require regulating the configuration of commercial companies complex networks is probably futile. No sooner would a rule be made than a clever ploy found to subvert it. A real world example of the Queen of Hearts – running ever faster just to stand still.

Far better is to shape the commercial landscape such that its not profitable to mess around with customers online experience – or to only do it in support of the customer. And its this that the UK is doing.

Led by Ofcom and adopted by the industry through the NICC, the UK’s next generation connectivity models will create a broadband market which should lead to a market where customers have choices and service providers will need to compete in a more open manner.

The UK has paved that way to shift net neutrality to a more nuanced and mature level through industry standards.

The Active Line Access (ALA) standard adopted by industry requires next generation network owners to provide multiple virtual networks to each home and business – only one of which is likely to be an ISP.

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While today if a content company isn’t happy about their treatment by ISP’s there’s little they can do about it but on UK next generation networks, they have the option to take one of the additional virtual networks to deliver their service directly to customers “around the side” rather than “over the top” of the ISP.

When she was at Ofcom, Chi Onwurah championed this, and I was more than happy to support her efforts as the NICC started to formalise the ALA standard. The now member of parliament for Central Newcastle, I think saw this as a way of delivering healthcare and government services (which it is and Martha Lane-Fox would do well to understand the importance of that) but it also means if Google don’t like the way Youtube is treated they could launch a service to deliver it through a VLAN which doesn’t go anywhere near a best endeavours internet service. Similarly for games companies, TV aggregators like Project Canvas/Youview, and so on.

Such commercial pressure, where ISPs can no longer monopolise customers’ access to the online world, should start to encourage them to be more supportive of customers choices or risk losing the rich media customers value. If valued content begins find alternative routes to customers’ screens, ISPs will be reduced to mere resellers of other people’s transit – the catch all service for the less used and less valued content.

As the JON Exchange moves closer to our go live data, we’re at pains to make sure this feature is built into from day one – there is already interest from games companies and we are developing relationships with healthcare companies. In the UK, through us at least, the term Service Provider won’t necessarily be simply synonymous with Internet Service Provider.

The BD-UK pilots would be a lot more interesting (not that they’re not already very interesting) if other Government departments would commit to piloting services over the projects. The NHS should be planning to pilot healthcare over a virtual network connected to the NHS network so the elderly or chronically ill could stay in their homes longer, or the Department of Education planning to offer virtual networks to children on free school meals in the pilot areas so all children have access to the learning platform at home (this reaches a significant part of the 30% Martha Lane-Fox it trying to address while looking to save money on service delivery).

By Government demonstrating leadership in this, it could light the way for private sector companies to launch their own services, pioneering a UK market where net neutrality is encouraged by commercial realities rather than blunt regulation.

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