An extraordinary year shows current net neutrality rules won’t help create the digitally-inclusive society we all want

By Marc Allera

Today I’ve been invited to speak at Enders’ Media and Telecoms 2021 & Beyond conference, which is always a
great opportunity to look back on the past year as well as look forward. I want to share some of what I’ve talked about at Enders. First, that it’s an important time to recognise everyone in the telco industry and the help given to so many people who need it most since life changed for us all last March. The networks and connectivity we all provide has never been more important – it’s been a lifeline, particularly for key workers and the UK’s most vulnerable people.

For BT, our purpose, to Connect For Good, has been at the heart of how we have responded to Covid. Our responsibility was first and foremost to help the nation through the pandemic: from prioritising vulnerable customers to get online, looking after customers in financial difficulty and helping children without connectivity keep up with their education.

With all our service teams exclusively in the UK and Ireland, it’s been possible for us to provide the technology, security and equipment for thousands of them to work from home. That helped us keep our customers connected to their jobs, education and entertainment – all of which drove a surge in demand for connectivity triggered by the first lockdown last March.

From Dundee to Plymouth, Sheffield to Glasgow, and Merthyr to Enniskillen, we have more than 11,000 customer service advisors, all based in UK and Ireland. Between them, they’ve answered 34 million calls in the past 12 months alone. We’ve also seen a surge in demand online, with 1.6bn digital visits over the past 12 months, and a 40% increase in use of BT and EE’s digital channels.

Face-to-face service is essential

For isolated and vulnerable people, or those without digital skills who rely on face-to-face communication to fix their service enquiries, these stores are an essential lifeline. We believe all communications providers’ stores should have been defined as ‘essential’ retailers and permitted to remain open – regardless of lockdown restrictions – and we were disappointed we couldn’t change the minds of the decision makers.

We take our responsibilities to older and more vulnerable customers very seriously. And we have a dedicated team to support them. We also understand that an increasing number of customers will need more support as the nation emerges from lockdown. We already offer a low-cost broadband and landline plan for customers who are on low incomes, and we're improving this in the coming months so that more people can benefit.

A small thing that’s made a big difference to a lot of people during lockdown has been our Care Home Companion initiative: volunteers from our BT contact centres make regular calls to local care home residents to help tackle loneliness at a time when they have not been able to see visitors. It’s another benefit of our contact centres being entirely based in the UK, another way we’re Connecting for Good – and it’s something we will continue after lockdown restrictions are lifted.

A new chapter in BT’s convergence journey

The way we are all connecting differently is reflected in how our networks are being used. Customers are demanding more data at faster speeds, in more places and at greater levels of reliability than ever before.

On top of the huge demand from blockbuster game launches and updates, constant software downloads, and mass streaming of popular TV series, millions of us have swapped our usual places of work and education for home. And that has seen our customers’ use of data more than double. We’ve built our networks to cope with the extraordinary demands of a nation in lockdown and innovated with new products like BT Halo 3+, bringing the BT and EE networks together to give our customers a connection they can depend on. It's the next chapter in our convergence journey and a UK first for hybrid network technology.

EE was recently named the number 1 network in the UK for the 15th time in a row by independent testers Rootmetrics. And they named us the number 1 network for 5G, too. We are seeing 5G usage soaring, with traffic growing more than 40% month on month between October and December 2020.

And, while gaming is on the rise, it’s YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and Instagram that are still the most popular services on EE’s 5G network. Month-on-month we’ve seen traffic grow for these services by at least 30%. Even in lockdown. In fact, they are consistently among the top services driving 60/70 per cent of traffic across our fixed and mobile networks. Not just on 5G.

New rules for net neutrality?

Elsewhere, we’ve been helping the Government get connectivity to school kids on mobile and on Wi-Fi through our Lockdown Learning support scheme. We’ve already distributed more than 150,000 vouchers, to almost 5,000 schools, and that number continues to grow. Part of BT’s Lockdown Learning support includes zero-rating BBC Bitesize and Oak Academy’s educational websites.

And with children returning to schools this week, we’re reviewing our zero-rating of these enormously popular websites. The problem we face is, allowing access for free to certain websites is incompatible with current net neutrality arrangements. Zero-rating large sites – for us and any other network operator – drives huge data traffic and costs onto networks.

It is clearer than ever that the way our networks are accessed and used is not equal. But what the pandemic has shown is that there are very good reasons to enable preferential access to certain platforms. And we believe now is time to explore what the future should look like, to enable everyone in the UK to benefit from connectivity and digitisation.

Current net neutrality arrangements also put pressure on networks to sustain the rise and rise of the most popular content and gaming platforms. The numbers we’re seeing on our network are huge. In November, we teamed up with Microsoft to offer the latest Xbox Series X|S consoles to our customers. The Xbox launch and subsequent game downloads, paired with an update to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and a Microsoft Windows patch created the largest traffic peak our broadband network has ever seen: 18Tbps. We’ve since seen that number surpassed over the Christmas period and a new peak of 21Tbps, driven by Premier League football being streamed live on Amazon Prime.

The biggest spikes on our fixed network typically happen when major sporting events on OTT TV coincide with games downloads. Evenings are usually the busiest time for our fixed networks because of gaming – a new battleground for all networks – and the popularity of on-demand TV. Last year, TV minutes viewed over IP surpassed those viewed on broadcast for the first time, according to Ofcom.

For network owners this is driving considerable extra cost. We’re relied on not only by our customers to deliver the connectivity they need every day, but also by the major content and gaming platforms who rely upon our networks to be blisteringly fast and reliable to deliver their services and content just as they intended. And yet the regulatory pressure and UK market pressure on customer prices is downwards – for all customers.

We think as an industry we will need to work much closer with all media providers. It’s in all of our interests, to keep our audiences engaged and customers happy, to deliver services and present content – music, video, film, games – exactly as it was intended. So we’re looking at how we can introduce new service layers and solutions that broadcasters, gaming providers and social media companies can buy into, to showcase their product in the best possible way.

It would ultimately mean more customers could feel the benefit of a faster, sharper, more reliable experience, no matter what they have connected to. Or where. These new ideas would see services and propositions, and media and telco services come together like never before.

Together, we can make TV content platforms better, and much more efficient. The proliferation of FTTP and 5G will enable the UK to migrate to an all-IP future for TV, for example. An adjustment to the existing net neutrality rules would enable us to ensure content is presented as the creators intended, without disruption to other parts of the net, offer better customer experiences to those who want it – including avid gamers – and create new business opportunities for network providers.

And this, in turn could create space for operators to support Government services at cost, or pro bono. Our focus is on being the connectivity partner that can make a difference. We want to be in a better position – for our industry and yours to be in a better position – to help create a better experience for our customers. And if those net neutrality rules are adjusted, it could also help us create the connected, digitally-included UK we all want to see.

Marc Allera, CEO, BT's Consumer brands. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @marcallera