14/12/2010

By Clodagh Murphy, director of Eclipse Internet

The current net neutrality debate has brought about many differing views around whether web traffic should be treated equally, regardless of content or origin. Some experts believe in a one-size-fits-all pipeline for whatever data is passing from content providers to end-users. Others have argued that the use of traffic management can help avoid network problems and result in better performance for users, but this can slow down access to non-prioritised services or applications. Then there is the view that treating one type of data differently from another undermines the openness of the Internet itself and constrains innovation.

Perhaps the key is in market research and transparency. By which I mean — understanding what your customers need and how you can provide the best service possible to them, then be honest, open and transparent about how that’s achieved.

That’s why I welcome Ofcom’s decision to order ISPs to make more information available to their customers about measures of control. It’s imperative that ISPs provide their customers with greater visibility of web traffic management to meet their ever-growing network demands.

It’s unavoidable that this has become an ISP issue because there are now so many different types of web traffic running across a company’s network that it has become almost impossible for small businesses themselves to prioritise the critical from the non-critical traffic.

What SMEs can do to take control

The social media phenomenon is a great example of where ISPs can help advise SMEs on making their own policies to optimize internet usage. Applications such as LinkedIn are a great way to find business contacts. However, does Facebook also offer the same business value to employees? What about Twitter or MySpace? Applications like this can be used for the good of the business, but not all the time.

However, IT departments of small businesses can block access to individual sites deemed unacceptable for browsing at work, to help improve productivity. The technical help offered by ISPs should include advising their small business customers on how to achieve this, but it certainly shouldn’t become a form of control unilaterally imposed by a provider themselves.

Another form of support I believe ISPs should look to offer business customers is a method of personal optimization. Again, this puts the ball in the SME court. What ISPs can and should be doing, is allowing our customers the freedom and authority to use their connection in their own way.

Importance of honesty

However, whilst providing maximum freedom in the use of connections is important, there is a compromise to be made. To best serve its business customers, an ISP needs to manage traffic on their networks to a sensible extent. Freedom of use needs to be the ethos, but practicality has to come first - and providing a stable and reliable connection is a priority.

It’s vital that ISPs are entirely open and honest to customers about their policies from the point of sale. One particularly grey and murky area is the phrase 'unlimited broadband' — which is thrown around far too easily by many companies, when this is so often not the case.
In the past year, I’ve made a stand on this particular issue and now sell “unlimited broadband” only when this is truly the case. Eclipse is looking to offer even more transparency with honest advice to customers by giving any potential purchaser the full facts before buying.

In summary, the net neutrality debate has much value in shaping the future of our industry, but it can’t be resolved with a simple decision. My biggest concern is that the debate is not taking the needs of small business into account. From an ISP standpoint — and as an SME specialist - I believe it’s vital we listen to small businesses and provide a service that’s truly fit for purpose. I question whether the net neutrality debate is yet going far enough to ensure SMEs receive what they need most: a practical service which supports success. It should have the principles of freedom at its heart — but practicality must drive progress.

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