Traffic management has always had a chequered history, with it being held responsible for all manner of broadband related problems, sometimes fairly and at other times it takes the blame because of the lack of solid information about how it works on a provider.
Ofcom is attempting to ensure that the average consumer, as opposed to just the tech elite will have visibility of how traffic management affects a broadband service. The launch in June 2011 of the Key Facts Indicator (KFI) table was a step forward to ensuring the largest providers were open as to what they manage. BSkyB, BT, Everything Everywhere, O2, TalkTalk, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone are all signed up to these voluntary agreement.
Ofcom has set out a basic level of information which ISPs should provide to their customers at the point of sale including:
- Average speed information that indicates the level of service consumers can expect to receive;
- Information about the impact of any traffic management that is used on specific types of services, such as reduced download speeds during peak times for peer-to-peer software, and
- Information on any specific services that are blocked, resulting in consumers being unable to run the services and applications of their choice
Terms used by ISPs to describe their services should also be clear. In particular, a consumer paying for 'internet access' should expect this to include the full range of services available over the open internet. ISPs should not use the term 'internet access' to refer to a service that blocks lawfully available internet services.Extracts from press release showing changes Ofcom would like
There is a danger that customers who will see adverts changing, i.e. referring to a speed that 10% of customers can achieve, then receiving their personal connection speed estimate, and an ISP wide average will get confused. Consider the scenario, advert showing up to 13 Mbps, line based estimate 4 Mbps, ISP average 6 Mbps, and you can see how confusion will arise, since at a simple level people will think as they are connecting at 4 Meg, that they are very likely to see close to this all the time, if the provider can supply on average 6 Meg. Additionally how an ISP measures its average and 10% target is crucial, i.e. is there some form of selection, to avoid those who use their connections heavily and those that hardly switch them on, or those on slower longer lines, in favour of those living close to the exchange.
The issue of blocking is already occurring, as we are seeing some providers where people with two connections at the same property cannot start peer-to-peer downloads on ISP A, but switching to B for the first few seconds of a download and then back to A and the download proceeds reasonably. The intention is probably not to block, but a side effect of the throttled bandwidth available to the servers needed to start a peer-to-peer download. Another issue that occurs on our forums regularly is when traffic management only affects some customers, and this is often down to a provider handling customers on a regional basis, and if load on that node is low the management may not be operating.
Many broadband consumers avoid providers who carry out traffic management, but if you are someone who does not engage in activities that are managed, then often you can be better off with a traffic managed service, as on a service with zero management if an exchange link, regional node or core link becomes congested you can find that online gaming becomes impossible, followed by web pages needing one or two refreshes before they appear. The financial sector phrase 'past performance is not a indicator of future performance' also applies, if a broadband deal is too good to resist and service looks great, then a month, or year down the line what was a brilliant provider can become congested and leave people wanting to abandon ship.