Traffic management is the tool used by ISPs to effectively protect the security and integrity of networks, to restrict the transmission to consumers of unsolicited communication (e.g. spam) or to give effect to a legislative provision or court order. It is also essential for the delivery of certain time-sensitive services (such as real-time IPTV and video conferencing) that may require a prioritisation of traffic to ensure a predefined higher quality of service.
However, there is a fragile balance between ensuring the openness of the Internet and the reasonable and responsible use of traffic management by ISPs. Drawing the line between legitimate and unjustified traffic management is challenging.
The blocking and throttling of P2P and VoIP is the most common example of unacceptable traffic management by operators: around 21% of fixed Internet access subscribers and around 36% of mobile subscriptions (200 million) are affected by restrictions.
The blocking and throttling (i.e. intentionally slowing down the speed) of Peer-to-Peer (P2P) services (such as file sharing and media streaming) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services (i.e. Internet telephony) are the most common examples. Other - less prevalent - instances are the restricted access to specific applications such as gaming, streaming, e-mails or instant messaging services.
This practice can stem from the desire to weaken the competition, the most prominent example of this is limiting access to VoIP services, as revealed by the traffic management investigation carried out by the Body of European Regulators (BEREC). Indeed, while ISPs provide voice calls through the traditional fixed or mobile networks, cheaper (or even free) VoIP substitutes can be found over the Internet.
Developers of content and applications are likely to reconsider their investments into new applications if there is a risk ISPs might discriminate against them. Moreover, excessive restrictions on competing applications might remove the incentive for ISPs to improve and innovate their own products which are challenged by those applications.
BEREC has identified two main types of degradation of quality of service: the Internet access service as a whole (e.g. caused by congestion on a regular basis), and individual applications using Internet access service (e.g. VoIP blocking and P2P throttling).
There are two main categories of inspection techniques by ISPs which are more or less intrusive:
one based on the Internet Protocol header information, which enables ISPs to identify the subscriber and apply specific policies according to what he or she has subscribed to e.g. routing the packet through a slower or faster link;
one based on a deeper inspection (called DPI, Deep Packet Inspection), which enables ISPs to access the data payload which may contain personal information.
Depending on the level of intrusion, such techniques may, therefore, infringe on the principles of “data minimisation” (i.e. accessing personal & identification data as little as possible) and “proportionality” (i.e. the action taken should not exceed that which is strictly necessary to achieve the set objectives) and could therefore be incompatible with EU data protection law, in particular the ePrivacy Directive and the Data Protection Directive. Moreover, the content of communications is protected by the right to confidentiality of correspondence, which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 7 and Article 8).
ISPs tend not to openly publicise information regarding traffic management practices. Such information can most frequently be found only when looking at the detailed terms and conditions of the ISPs' offers, if at all. A recent report from the UK consumer organisation - Consumer Focus - has found that consumers have very limited awareness of the term ‘traffic management’.
In some cases, consumers are not even aware of the level of quality they can expect from their Internet service, for example possible discrepancies between advertised speeds and actual broadband speeds.
However, ISPs are also faced with challenges of their own.
Users' appetite for services and applications which require continuous data exchange keeps growing. Mirroring the market evolution, the traffic conveyed on networks has been increasing continuously. Overall IP traffic is estimated by Cisco to almost quadruple by 2016 & reach 110.2 exabytes per month.
One of the main objectives behind the use of traffic management is the reduction of network congestion resulting from this outstanding growth in data traffic. ISPs commonly apply differential treatment of traffic, in particular during certain times of the day, to ensure that the end user's experience is not disrupted by network congestion.
Certain IP services or applications, like VoIP or video services, require a degree of prioritisation in order to provide a good end-user experience. ISPs have to implement certain quality parameters in their network (e.g. minimising bit rate, latency and error rate).
The issue of network congestion is further exacerbated by still insufficient levels of fast broadband coverage in Europe. The target of all European citizens having access to fast broadband (at speeds equal to or higher than 30 Mbps) by 2020 requires further investment efforts with currently only 50% achieved.