4G threatens a fair and balanced UK net

THE auction to sell off the next swathe of mobile phone spectrum has been a long time coming and still seems to be a long way off.

There's time enough, then, for Government and regulators to ensure that 4G users are able to experience the web in a free and fair way.

Given the way the mobile networks operate now, it's vital that they do.

Turning broadband on its head

4G has the potential to turn the UK's broadband market on its head.

Millions of households, particularly those in rural areas or areas of poor broadband coverage, will be able to access broadband speeds well in excess of those they can expect from current fixed line or 3G services.

The Coalition sees 4G very much a part of its plans to deliver the unambitious 2Mb Universal Service Commitment by 2015.

No wonder Ofcom is so keen to get the process right first time, dragging its feet to ensure it avoids messy legal battles with the mobile operators in the bidding positions.

But making the mobile networks more central to the UK's broadband future turns the market on its head in another sense, too.

The success of 4G networks will rely in part upon mobile operators being able to deliver a service which is comparable to the (albeit slow) fixed line services the Government would like them to replace.

Mobile networks restrict traffic

Restricting some types of traffic - P2P or streaming video, for example - is already de rigeur among fixed line broadband providers.

The mobile networks also currently restrict services on 3G networks in order to further their own commercial interests but to a much greater extent.

Skype for example, has its services restricted by many different mobile networks across Europe. Mobile providers see its low cost calls as a threat to their own revenues.

It cannot be right to operate a market where users face penalties for consuming particular types of content.

This flies in the face of net neutrality, one of the founding principles of the internet, which rules that all traffic travelling across Web should be treated equally, regardless of origin or destination.

The sheer, staggering volume of data consumed by mobile connections through smartphones and tablets means this matters even now.

The latest Cisco Global Traffic Forecast, showed that the consumption of mobile data has more than doubled every year during the past four years.

In 2000, mobile data traffic was over eight times larger than the size of the entire internet.

In 2011, mobile video traffic was responsible for over 50% of total global traffic for the first time and in countries where 4G services are already up and running, mobile users on the faster networks ate through over 28 times more data, on average, than those with non 4G connections.

The networks will say that the debate comes down to balancing net neutrality with quality of service.

They will reserve the right to restrict usage which 'degrades' the service.

If unchecked by Ofcom, however, networks will rig the 4G broadband market in their favour.

We already have mobile broadband deals that only allow access to VoIP for those that pay a premium, for example.

If the network operators are given free rein to decide what traffic can travel across their networks, at what speed and at what time of day, then users may not end up reaping all the potential that this revolutionary service could offer.

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