Net neutrality hysterics: Stop crying wolf

Don't fret about net neutrality. The digital divide is the real internet scandal...

Net neutrality is big news again, but it's a storm in a teacup that risks diverting attention from more significant problems with the internet in the UK, says Natasha Lomas.

News this week that BT Wholesale is launching a service that will allow ISPs to deliver online video faster has reignited the smouldering net neutrality debate in the UK, with claims that this could be the end of the open internet as we know it.

BT Content Connect, which will launch at the end of the first quarter of this year, will be offered as a managed service to fixed and mobile broadband providers. BT Retail will also use it for delivering the BBC's iPlayer on-demand TV service via BT's IPTV offering, BT Vision.

Critics have attacked Content Connect as the beginning of a two-tier internet in the UK - the end of net neutrality. The fear is that such services could allow ISPs to dump content that they don't like into a slow lane, while prioritising their own. Discussing the service, Labour MP and tech pundit Tom Watson told IT PRO: "This is a worrying development. Turning a broadband connection into the internet equivalent of Sky TV is not good for small businesses or consumers."

BT rejects such accusations, arguing it is merely offering ISPs the ability to differentiate their service by providing "enhanced viewing quality" for online video services such as iPlayer.

Net neutrality

Net neutrality remains no more than a principle in the UK and is not enshrined in law or regulations
(Photo credit: Taramisu via under the following Creative Commons licence)

And it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that BT's critics are jumping the gun.

Content Connect is a content distribution network (CDN). To run the service, BT is adding servers to its network which will store content locally, relative to the end user, thereby improving the reliability and performance of video streaming by reducing buffering.

Crucially BT will not be undertaking packet prioritisation.

"It's up to ISPs and content providers whether they want to opt for this service," a BT spokeswoman told "It's all about giving the ISP choice. How they decide to treat the content on their networks is entirely down to the ISP. BT Wholesale just sits in the middle and provides the tool.

"Any preferential treatment or prioritisation of content or bandwidth throttling is entirely down to the ISP - not to the wholesale provider. It's up to the ISPs, the content providers and the broadcasters how they use the service."

Now CDNs are nothing new - companies such as Akamai and Limelight Networks have already build global CDNs to speed up the delivery of streaming media via a network of geographically distributed servers. BT's Content Connect means there will be...