Is network neutrality a fake issue? Not if you want to watch the BBC

British Internet providers threaten to cut off people's access to the BBC's online videos unless the broadcasting company pays ISPs a fee.

Published August 13, 2007 5:23PM (EDT)

Anti-regulation types -- or folks who are paid by huge firms to be anti-regulation types -- are fond of saying that "network neutrality" is a phony controversy. Proponents of neutrality rules want the government to force Internet service providers to treat all content on the Internet equally -- ISPs wouldn't be allowed to give some videos a fast lane on their networks, or to block people from accessing Web sites that haven't paid the ISP a fee. We don't need such rules, anti-neutrality lobbyists say, because ISPs would never play so unfairly.

Oh yeah? Look at what's happening in the U.K.

As several British papers reported over the weekend, large ISPs have threatened to shut down people's access to the BBC's online videos -- unless, of course, the BBC pays the ISPs a fee.

The controversy finds its roots in a BBC project called iPlayer, a program that is currently in beta stages but that will, when it's released, give people free access to thousands of hours of BBC videos on their computers. Like many efforts to move large files around the Internet -- for instance, BitTorrent, Skype and Joost -- iPlayer is a peer-to-peer program; people who use it, that is, will be uploading and downloading bits and piece of files to each other.

If the system gets very popular, the ISPs say, it'll crush their networks. Mary Turner, who heads the U.K. ISP Tiscali, tells the Financial Times that "the Internet was not set up with a view to distributing video. We have been improving our capacity, but the bandwidth we have is not infinite." She added: "If the iPlayer really takes off, consumers accessing the Internet will get very slow service and will call their ISPs to complain."

The BBC faces a choice, Turner tells the paper. It can pay ISPs to "share" costs of building out more network space -- or the network providers will restrict people's access to iPlayer.

You may have a hard time seeing the naked gall in this offer. Hey, you might say, if the BBC wants to offer video, why shouldn't it pay ISPs for network space it uses?

Easy answer: Because customers already paid for that space!

Check out Tiscali's home page. Right there in big, inviting type, you see an offer for "unlimited" broadband service for just 8 pounds a month.

That's right, no limits: Tiscali's broadband packages "come with a free modem and unlimited time online so you can surf as long as you like, whenever you like," the marketing copy states (my emphasis added). And that's not all! Tiscali's service is "ideal for high bandwidth tasks such as music, video streaming and downloading large files."

So there you go. In its pitch, the ISP tells you that you can stay online as long as you like, and that its service is best for downloading videos and large files.

But the CEO says "the Internet was not set up with a view to distributing video," and that if customers really want the promised "unlimited" service, both the media company (the BBC) and the customer have to pay up.

Now. Isn't it time already we passed network neutrality laws on this side of the pond?

-- Farhad Manjoo

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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