BT to Test Network Neutrality With Its Own CDN

Net neutrality proponents in the U.K. have been up in arms this week after the revelation that BT’s wholesale division was rolling out a new service called Content Connect, which aims to provide a higher quality of service to content providers on its backbone network. The important question isn’t whether BT’s specific offering will create a “two-tier web,” as many opponents have suggested, but whether content delivery networks (CDNs) inherently violate the spirit of network neutrality.

Let’s be clear: What BT is launching (and has been planning for some time) is not a new type of service, by any means. Content Connect is merely a CDN service, just like the kind that Akamai, (s AKAM) Limelight, (s LLNW) Level 3 (s LVLT) and others already operate in the U.K. and around the world. So Content Connect is not, as the FT suggests, “paving the way for [a] two-tier web.”

That said, BT’s Content Connect does offer a tricky proposition for net neutrality proponents because it introduces an ISP offering paid prioritization to deliver certain content faster. While standalone CDNs like Akamai get a pass, the beef with BT offering CDN-type services is that in addition to running one of the largest IP backbones throughout the U.K., it is also the number one consumer broadband provider. But opponents to Content Connect need to differentiate the services that BT is offering over its wholesale IP network from those that it offers consumers through its broadband business.

The FCC recently tackled the net neutrality issue in the U.S., ruling that last-mile broadband providers can’t discriminate against or degrade traffic that flows to end users. But the Commission was clear that these rules didn’t apply to CDNs. In a long footnote to its net neutrality order, the FCC argued that unlike ISPs, CDNs don’t control the last-mile connection with the end user and don’t cause harm to third-party traffic that isn’t delivered by the CDN.

The differentiation is important for network operators in the U.S., particularly those that operate wholesale and broadband networks. While standalone CDNs like Akamai or Limelight are pretty much in the clear, broadband ISPs like AT&T and Verizon have crept into the CDN business through their IP backbones. While those companies clearly shouldn’t discriminate against different types of traffic on its last-mile network, no one is suggesting that they shut down their CDN businesses.

BT is not, as might be inferred by some hysterical reports, planning to prioritize video traffic in the last mile or degrade the delivery of media that content providers don’t pay for, which is at the heart of the net neutrality debate. As far as its last-mile connection is concerned, all traffic will be treated equally. But what it is offering with Content Connect is smart routing over its IP backbone, which is an entirely different thing.

The same rules that apply to companies like AT&T and Verizon in the U.S. should also work for network operators in the U.K. — which is why BT should be in the clear, and why charges that it is creating an “Internet fast lane” are overblown. That fast lane already existed for content providers that wanted to pay other CDNs, and would continue to do so even if BT didn’t enter the CDN market.

Image courtesy of Flickr user TheTruthAbout.

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