UK’s Version of the FCC Supports Relaxing Net Neutrality Rules
By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband
Washington, D.C. Oct.28. 2023 – The United Kingdom’s version of the Federal Communications Commission is having second thoughts about the country’s Net Neutrality regime, deciding the time has come to loosen things up a bit and give broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs) greater flexibility in the management of their networks and the types of services they offer.
For instance, the UK regulator — called Ofcom — says government should largely not interfere with zero rating packages — once a big issue for U.S. wireless carriers that provided certain video streaming services to customers without counting the data usage against monthly consumption quotas.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the FCC is moving in the opposite direction, with FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel determined to use her one-vote Democratic majority to impose utility-style common carrier regulations on broadband ISPs — whether the network is owned by a giant like AT&T or a minnow like CASSCOMM in Virginia, Illinois (pop.1,497).
The FCC got the so-called Title II rulemaking rolling on Oct. 19 in a 3–2 vote that exposed deep partisan divisions within the powerful agency. The FCC is expected to have final rules in place by midyear 2024, followed by a titanic court battle that will likely sail all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ofcom telegraphed its new approach in January but didn’t release official wording until yesterday (Oct. 26) — exactly one month after Rosenworcel made her announcement to stage the Oct. 19 vote at her agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Ofcom’s modifications to Net Neutrality include:
Ofcom: “ISPs can offer premium quality retail offers.” Translation: ISP can offer fast lanes to users of “high-quality virtual reality applications.”
Ofcom: “ISPs can develop new specialized services.” Translation: ISPs may dedicate bandwidth to “real time communications, virtual reality and driverless vehicles.”
Ofcom: “ISPs can use traffic management measures to manage their networks.” Translation: ISPs can manage traffic to ensure that “good quality of service is maintained for consumers.”
Ofcom: “Most zero-rating offers will be allowed.” Translation: ISPs are free to waive data caps except in “the limited circumstances where [Ofcom] might have concerns.”
“The net neutrality rules are designed to constrain the activities of broadband and mobile providers; however, they could also be restricting their ability to develop new services and manage their networks efficiently,” said Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s Director of Connectivity.
UK telecom giant BT Group applauded Ofcom, calling the proposed rules “a step in the right direction for more sustainable networks.”
In the U.S., zero-rating became controversial in early 2017. Then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler — who was just a few days from leaving office — said AT&T was likely violating the agency’s newly adopted Net Neutrality rules because, as an FCC report at the time said, “AT&T offers Sponsored Data to third-party content providers at terms and conditions that are effectively less favorable than those it offers to its affiliate, DirecTV.”
The dispute fizzled out because Wheeler’s Net Neutrality rules were repealed by the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai in late 2017. But zero-rating could come roaring back next year once the Rosenworcel FCC has new Net Neutrality rules on the books.
In its statement, Ofcom underscored that it was issuing “guidance,” adding that the country’s Net Neutrality rules have been established in law and any changes to the law require action by Parliament.