Ofcom has revealed it is investigating two major UK mobile network providers, Three and Vodafone, for potential breaches of the EU’s net neutrality rules.
At issue are Three’s restriction of tethering and SIM cards, transparency and throttling in Vodafone’s zero-rated Pass tariffs, and both providers’ slowing of particular traffic streams, particularly on roaming services.
Under net neutrality rules that came into effect 30 April 2016, internet service providers in the EU are legally required to treat all traffic on their networks equally and not give preference to any site or services. These regulations are designed to safeguard the ‘open internet,’ ensuring that web users—and not broadband providers—decide what they do on the internet and that they have equal and unfettered access to all lawful content on the web.
The regulations allow providers to take ‘reasonable’ measures to manage traffic on their networks but specifies these traffic management practices must be clear and, transparent, imposed only for quality of service reasons and only remain in place as long as necessary.
Ofcom monitors compliance with these net neutrality rules in the UK and in December 2017 flagged Three and Vodafone for potential infringements. The investigations are continuing.
Ofcom has targeted Three for its restricting of tethering (when a mobile network is used, via a smartphone, to create a WiFi network that can be used by another device) on certain tariffs. The restrictions are potentially in violation of the net neutrality regulation guaranteeing “end-users… the right to use terminal equipment of their choice.”
Also potentially in violation of this provision are Three’s restrictions on the devices in which SIM cards can be used. Currently a Three SIM purchased for use in a mobile phone cannot be used in a tablet.
Three’s ‘traffic management’ practices are also under question, with Ofcom investigating whether the provider is engaging in legitimate management practices or deliberately slowing certain streams of traffic, including video streaming and peer-to-peer and virtual private network traffic, including when users are ‘roaming.’
Meanwhile, Vodafone has drawn Ofcom’s regulatory eye with its zero-rated Passes, which allow Pay Monthly customers to pay a set fee and then enjoy “endless” data usage on specific apps without eating into their data allowance. For example, £3/month “Chat Pass” buys unlimited data on Facebook Messanger, WhatsApp and Viber while a £7/month Video Pass gives users unlimited streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other steaming sites.
Ofcom is investigating whether Vodafone is throttling certain streams of traffic under the Passes, including restricting video resolution. Additionally, Ofcom questions whether exceptions to the zero-rating within the Pass tariff are transparent and customers are aware that certain activities will eat into their general data allowance.
Ofcom aims to complete the evidence gathering phase of the investigations into Three and Vodafone by July.