Traffic management – the prioritizing of some kinds of internet traffic over others – is of great interest to many in the tech industry because it is fundamental and powerful. It can be used for good or for bad: internet providers need to employ a degree of traffic management in order to make customers’ experience as good as possible, especially during busy times of the day, but they can also use it to block rivals’ services or to extort money out of content providers.
But don’t let the importance of the concept to the open internet mislead you into thinking it’s something that sets the heart of the average joe aflutter. In fact, according to consumer research published Wednesday by Ofcom, the British telecoms regulator, almost everyone couldn’t care less about traffic management.
To be precise, the Kantar Media researchers commissioned by Ofcom found just one percent of respondents take traffic management policies into account when choosing a fixed or mobile broadband service. The top priority when choosing? Cost, of course – the “key driver” for 50 percent of those looking for fixed-line contracts and 42 percent of those looking for mobile deals.
So, why does no one seem to care about traffic management? To answer that question, it’s worth pulling back briefly to examine Ofcom’s motivation for commissioning the research.
A couple of years back, the regulator got the big British ISPs to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct around traffic management, in which they agreed to be more transparent with their customers about the way they, for example, throttle P2P traffic in the evenings. This research is Ofcom checking up on the results, to see if transparency is sufficient when trying to protect the consumer.
The results are mixed: only one in 10 people surveyed actually had any idea what traffic management was, but 73 percent of those who did said their ISP was good at conveying its terms transparently. What’s more, once the researchers explained to people what traffic management was, only 6 percent said they would consider it as a factor when deciding on their next ISP contract.
This may have something to do with the fact that people are pretty satisfied with the internet service they’re getting – 81 percent of those surveyed about fixed connections, and 73 percent regarding mobile. Again, the fact that only 29 percent of those surveyed counted connection speed as their top priority suggests to me that people are happy with what they have.
I’d say this is a function of recent fiber and cable network upgrades outstripping (for now) the demands of currently popular internet applications. With new developments such as the rise of 4K video, though, I wouldn’t bet on the scenario staying so rosy for long.
Is transparency enough?
Unsurprisingly, Ofcom has decided that the survey backs up its previous decision to focus on transparency – for the time being, at least. The regulator noted, however, that it wanted to find out whether the low levels of awareness were in themselves “a source of consumer harm”:
“In this respect, whilst it is important that consumers who are affected by traffic management are able to access appropriate information about it, the direct online experience of many consumers might currently be unlikely to be affected by traffic management. This may however change in the future and Ofcom will keep the issue under review.”
Of course, Ofcom may soon not have a choice about focusing so heavily on transparency as a consumer safeguard. The European Commission is about to come out with net neutrality proposals that will outright ban the blocking of services such as Skype by some providers – something Ofcom has shied away from doing thus far.
However, the Commission also seems set to enable a two-speed internet, allowing ISPs to offer both connections with a guaranteed quality of service and those with “best efforts” quality – i.e. worse quality if the network is congested and the more expensive connections get the bandwidth to back up their guarantees. This is not net neutrality as its advocates recognize the concept, so there will be blood.
And so, for now, traffic management will continue to be a hot topic for some — just not many.
PS: If you want to give someone the gift of knowing what traffic management is, Ofcom has put together a handy guide.