Virgin Media (VM) today moved to calm fears that it will start throttling web video from providers who refuse to hand over a levy to deliver their content.
A spokesman for the firm said it does not intend to hinder access to content providers who do not pay. Rather, VM could offer content providers deals to upgrade their provisioning if they want to ensure best access to to broadband subscribers.
The BBC already does that via direct peering with the VM network, to offer faster iPlayer access. That link sees no money change hands. "It could be argued that that's a non-neutral solution," the spokesman said.
VM said it would not seek to press others to follow suit by interfering with its customers' link to the wider internet. "We strongly support the principle that the internet should remain a space that is open to all and we have not called for content providers to pay for distribution," its statement said.
"However, we recognise that as more customers turn to the web for content different providers will have different needs and priorities and, in the long term, it's legitimate to question how this demand will be managed. We welcome an informed debate on this issue."
Speculation of a bid by VM to squeeze cash from content provders has been sparked by comments made by CEO Neil Berkett, reported by the Royal Television society magazine. "This network neutrality thing is a load of bollocks," Television said he charged at a conference in February.
Berkett reportedly said video providers who don't pay for technical ways around the congestion on the wider internet might effectively end up in slow "bus lanes". That comment has been seized upon by net neutrality advocates as evidence of a conspiracy to turn the screws on the BBC and other broadcasters.
VM's spokesman said Berkett's statements had been taken out of context, insisting: "We're not suggesting there will be any denial of access to those who don't want to pay."
The firm currently operates bandwidth throttling at peak times, but unlike many other ISPs does not use deep packet inspection technology to single out classes of traffic, such as peer-to-peer. The heaviest five per cent of users are simply slowed down across the board.
The cable firm today argued that its upcoming 50MBit/s network upgrade makes it well placed to serve the boom in internet video, whether big providers want to get involved in network issues or not. Other ISPs led by Tiscali, who buy bandwidth from BT, have called on the BBC to help pay for the cost of distributing shows online.
Tiscali's stance has invoked anger from broadband subscribers who rightly blame the internet industry for years of false marketing of "unlimited" packages, all the while introducing ever-more stringent traffic management policies in the background.
Yet it seems increasingly clear that someone's going to pay the price for the UK's lack of investment in a modern internet infrastructure. We suspect you can draw your own conclusions as to who it's looking like that'll be. ®