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ISP service obligations will be needed when TV shares networks, say Lords

Out-Law News | 31 Jul 2012 | 3:58 pm | 3 min. read

Internet service providers (ISPs) may be forced to provide the public with a minimum standard of service if broadcast services are delivered via the internet and no longer over the airwaves as seems will "eventually" be "overwhelmingly" the case, a Parliamentary committee has said.

In a report into the Government's broadband strategy the Lords Select Committee said that it is not currently "appropriate" to require ISPs to provide specific speeds of broadband connection and minimum service levels, but that the case for a 'universal services obligation' (USO) to be introduced may be "stronger" in the future. This is because of the likelihood of more TV services being delivered through broadband rather than through traditional spectrum, it said.

"While we do not support the introduction of a USO at present, we do believe that broadcast media will increasingly come to be delivered via the internet," the report said. "As and when that happens, and particularly in circumstances where this applies to [public service broadcasting] channels, the argument for recommending a USO becomes stronger. The Government should begin now to give this active consideration."

Consumers are likely to be drawn to "enhanced broadband" services because of the rise of "Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) services", the Committee said. Those services are likely to "become ever more widespread, and eventually the case for transferring the carriage of broadcast content, including public service broadcasting, from spectrum to the internet altogether will become overwhelming," it added.

Spectrum is "more suited" to "mobile applications" and therefore delivering TV services through broadband networks "may well be a more sensible arrangement," the Committee said.

The Committee criticised the Government's broadband strategy for being too heavily focused on building increased speed of connectivity in specific areas, rather than ensuring that the public had access to a more consistent speed of service. It said that the Government should "commit to reducing the digital divide".

"In order to ensure that the digital divide is braced and gradually drawn in, it will be important for the UK's low-end speeds to increase in line with the increase in median speeds," the report said. "Otherwise, those with the slowest connections will not share in the advances elsewhere, and we will create a widening digital divide which will be socially divisive."

"It should be a fundamental principle of broadband policy that whatever measures are undertaken to enhance or extend its availability, they strive to bring about equality of opportunity to access broadband across all communities in the UK. In this sense, Government policy on broadband should be driven, above all, by the social benefits it can unleash, and the need to arrest and ultimately reduce a damaging digital divide. We recommend that future broadband policy should not be built around precise speed targets end-users can expect to receive in the short-term, however attractive these may be for sloganeers," it said.

However, the Committee said that it was not currently "appropriate" to introduce a minimum level of service that ISPs would have to adhere to in order to reduce the difference between access and service levels for broadband in different areas of the UK.

"It is our view that a Universal Service Obligation (USO) is not an appropriate way to bring about universal access to minimum levels of service, not least because in practice, imposing legal obligations on ISPs could easily and quickly lead to drawn out proceedings in the courts," it said.

"We do, therefore, endorse the approach adopted by the Government: pledging a Universal Service Commitment, to which it will be politically accountable, and stating explicitly a clear political aspiration to provide universal access to a minimum level of broadband provision. This, in our view, is at this stage a more appropriate approach than introducing a legally-binding USO," the Committee added.

Last year telecoms regulator Ofcom said it would force UK ISPs to provide a minimum quality of service to consumers if it thinks providers are overly restricting access to content over their networks.

It said that ISPs must ensure that they provide as open and neutral a service to users as possible. Ofcom accepted that some "traffic management" techniques are necessarily used by ISPs to ensure an efficient service, but said that ISPs must leave enough spare network capacity to deliver a 'best efforts' service, where access is generally "open" and "equal" for users.

ISPs engage in traffic shaping, or traffic management, to ensure that one user's heavy use of a network for downloading material does not prevent another user of that network from being able to perform basic tasks such as sending or receiving email or looking at web pages. Ofcom said that it was happy to rely on the market to ensure that traffic management was not used to discriminate against access to rivals' content but that that strategy was dependent on ISPs being transparent with consumers "as to the nature of the services they offer".

Under the EU's Framework for Electronic Communications Directive member states must ensure that national regulatory authorities "take all reasonable measures" proportionate 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".

Other rules set out in the Universal Services Directive require ISPs to provide consumers with "comparable, adequate and up-to-date information for end-users on the quality of their services" as well as "transparent and up-to-date" details on prices, tariffs and contractual terms and conditions. Under the Directive regulators can choose whether or not ISPs should be required to maintain a minimum quality of service.