Virgin Media May Ignore Network Neutrality

Virgin's CEO suggests those not willing to pay Virgin an extra fee for speed would end up in the "bus lanes" of broadband delivery.

Virgin Media has gone old-school when it comes to network neutrality. The United Kingdom's second-largest broadband provider, with 3.5 million customers, said it wants to charge content providers different rates to deliver prioritized data, voice and video.

In an interview in the Royal Television Society's Television magazine, Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett warned that those not willing to pay Virgin an extra fee for speed would end up in the "bus lanes" of broadband delivery. Berkett called the principle of network neutrality-all content being delivered equally to all users-"a load of bollocks."

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Like all broadband providers, Virgin is facing the challenge of delivering growing volumes of video to users, using up huge chunks of broadband in the process. Berkett said Virgin is considering a fee-based system for content providers wishing to have their traffic moved faster than others.

While Berkett's comments were in relation to the BBC and its iPlayer online video player, the plan could also include peer-to-peer traffic and video sharing sites like YouTube. According to the BBC, users watch 600,000 shows per day with more than 42 million shows viewed online already in 2008.

The BBC's iPlayer traffic is surging along, jumping by 25 percent per month. Adding to the traffic is the recent availability of the player on Apple's iPhone and Nintendo's Wii game console.

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"The BBC does pay to create, encode, host and distribute its programs into the broadband network, but we should not have to subsidize the ISPs' infrastructure upgrades," Ashley Highfield, the BBC's former director of future media and technology, said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

Highfield added, "I don't think any content providers should pay ISPs to deliver their content: Users would, I strongly believe, react very negatively to a situation in which certain video content was throttled or downgraded or even not made available because that content provider had not paid a levy to a particular ISP."

Before Virgin could actually launch the plan, it would have to seek approval from Ofcom (Office of Communications), the British regulatory equivalent to the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission).

In the United States, the network neutrality debate has moved to a discussion of ISP network management. The FCC is currently investigating complaints against Comcast for "throttling" network traffic from applications using BitTorrent. Comcast admits to the practice but contends that it falls under the "reasonable network management" allowed by the FCC.