Ofcom statement is a step in the right direction for more sustainable networks


By Howard Watson, Chief Security and Networks Officer, BT Group

This week, network data will have shown a spike of usage on mobile masts alongside the UK’s motorway network, as passengers navigated, gamed and streamed away the hours during the half term getaway.

Whether it’s road tailbacks or the crush on the morning commute, we’re all used to the challenges of travel at peak times. We strive to avoid the same kinds of congestion on digital networks, despite also experiencing periods of exceptional demand.

We know that, typically, most demand is in the early evening, as work emails are shut down, personal devices are switched on and live sport hits the network. That means we need to carefully manage our networks to avoid congestion; no one wants to miss a goal because they’re caught in a digital traffic jam. Ofcom has now delivered some important clarity over regulations that should help us with this.

Why are networks getting busier?

Both the quantity and quality of content is growing. Online gaming, virtual worlds and the growth of streaming, coupled with ever more sophisticated tech that delivers these experiences in greater quality, are driving up data usage. Ofcom’s Mobile Strategy Review – released in December 2022 – forecast a year on year 40% traffic growth across mobile networks and BT Group expects a similarly huge increase in traffic growth across our fixed network by the early 2030s.

Of particular issue is ‘content clash,’ when massive data events – such as huge game downloads or major football matches - occur simultaneously on the network. At present, we build our network to accommodate these extraordinarily high peaks (despite them being occasional and often very short duration) to avoid a poor customer experience. But that’s akin to investing in an extra 10 motorway lanes only to see them used by bank holiday traffic just a few times a year.

That investment would be far better made elsewhere in the business. At a time when we’re balancing our responsibilities of growing coverage, subsidising more online access than anyone else and supporting vital public services to digitise, we have to ensure we’re not wasting money to facilitate inefficient use of the internet.  And the energy resources that consumes. This is where Ofcom’s statement comes in.

What will Ofcom’s changes mean?

In January, Ofcom announced they would review their application of net neutrality rules – basic principles that were established to protect customers’ rights to access content. The fundamental tenets of net neutrality are supported across the industry and the changes Ofcom have made regard how they are applied in practice. 

First, they’ve provided welcome clarity around what innovative solutions are permitted under “specialised services” rules. This will give us greater certainty to develop and invest in exciting new ideas. It’s been unclear until now, for example, whether we could develop a service which prioritises the relay of messages controlling the direction of a drone, to keep it flying safely. 

Second, they’ve clarified that zero-rating – the process of ensuring some online services don’t count towards a customer’s data usage – have some value. This will allow us to offer a range of products to customers, tailored to their specific needs. 

Finally and positively, they’ve acknowledged that ISPs and network owners, are allowed to take some traffic management steps to contribute to network efficiency and prevent congestion on the network. 

These changes are welcome and important and will help us to manage our network in the short term. But they are the start of further reforms that are needed, so we can face into the future with confidence. Unless and until telecommunications companies have the necessary environment to negotiate on a level playing field with content providers, the challenges of meeting growing demand will remain reliant on telcos funding endless capacity upgrades. 

The internet is hugely valuable, but the benefits and costs could be more evenly spread. We need to create a new model that supports the laudable public policy goals of increasing coverage and getting more people online, while also ensuring reliability, quality and investment efficiency. 

Ofcom’s statement is clear that any further reform will need Government action. Supporting the future delivery of content over the internet is becoming vital public policy and new rules – still guided by the principles of an open internet, consumer choice, innovation and efficiency – could unleash a new wave of online innovation in the UK.

You can find out more about our strategy for delivering the future of online content on our policy pages.