Two-tier internet already a reality?
The recent news that the US Justice Department has made noises giving a nod and a wink to broadband providers being able to charge for priority traffic has re-ignited the debate in the UK. While the debate is happening, for many broadband users in the UK there are already two or more tiers to how fast different sites and services work - all that is missing is charging to alter the priority
There are some differences between the US internet market and the UK obviously. A major difference is that peering between providers and content providers is not done on the same commercial basis as the US. Of course this does not stop providers from implementing traffic management techniques on individuals connections.
Traffic management alone is not necessarily evil. If used to ensure that time sensitive protocols do not suffer at peak times, it is often welcomed. Where providers are using it to throttle customers as a way of avoiding network investment it becomes more noticeable and annoying. The ultimate danger is that providers will start to favour individual content portals based on a commercial deal. This could manifest as video from one website running at dial-up speeds, whereas the preferred provider runs smoothly even at peak times. If a broadband provider were to take this route, then it is likely they would offer people a paid for upgrade path.
The one area that is likely to bring this debate to a head is TV over broadband which, if it becomes more than a flash in a pan, will have the power to saturate the capacity between broadband providers and the consumer. BT Retail with its BT Vision is partially running a two-tier system already. When video on demand (VoD) content is requested, an assured rate session is booked to ensure a smooth stream, whereas people viewing streamed content from other sites will not get a prioritised session.
The broadband market is well used to hype and IPTV would appear to be the area where the most marketing hyperbole is being used at present. No serious provider seems to want to be seen to not have an offering, and there is no shortage of manufacturers trying to sell their systems to providers. Unless High Definition content can be provided then it seems unlikely that IPTV will be massive in the UK as the Freeview, cable and satellite TV markets already offer myriads of choice to consumers. As with the debate surrounding the BBC iPlayer and the costs to the broadband providers, issues like impact on usage levels and network capacity often seem to be ignored or swept under the carpet.