From web speeds to net neutrality: what makes the internet fair?
With households across the country considering access to the internet as a basic utility, we investigate how that access is likely to change as regulators around the globe define the future of the World Wide Web.
When evaluating the fairness of the internet in the UK, this report will largely focus on two separate issues: the first being the disparity of web speeds across the country, and the second being net neutrality laws and the impact they could have on web access if they are removed as in the US.
How does the Internet actually work?
Turn on Wi-Fi or mobile data, type in a website and within a second or two, you're ready to go. Assuming everything works as it should, that's the most we tend to think about getting online.
But how does that data actually get to you, who else other than you and the website is involved in the process? Here's the quick run-down, starting with a trip down memory lane.
In this article
- How does the internet actually work?
- What does fair internet look like?
- The UK’s broadband imbalance
- Internet speed: expectations vs. reality
- What is net neutrality?
- Arguments for and against net neutrality
- Net neutrality laws in the UK: are they already being breached?
- What you can do to help keep your internet service fair
A brief history of the internet
ARPANET - On October 29, 1969, computers at Stanford and UCLA are connected for the first time. The first network connection that would eventually become the internet
Email is developed with the ground-breaking decision to use the @ symbol to separate the user name and domain name
First transatlantic connection - between University College London and Norway's National Defence Research Establishment (it ran 9.6 kilobits p/s… so slow that it would take over an hour to download a single song)
The first emoticon used :-)
First web page created (which you can still browse here: http://info.cern.ch/)
eBay lists its first item (a broken laser pointer, if you must know). Amazon is also started, but won't turn profit until 2001
First news story to be broken online instead of via traditional media
Google! launches (they soon became less excited and dropped the exclamation mark)
Facebook opens to college students
Calls for an internet bill of rights to protect web users' privacy and freedom of speech
Net neutrality issued in the US by the FCC
Before fibre-optic broadband and 4G, the most popular way to access the internet was known as dial-up. As you shouted to your family to ask them to not use the phone, you would have likely heard this sound whilst trying to connect:
Click or tap the speaker to listen:
Telephones were never made for the internet, but early on they proved to have more use than just transmitting sounds. Yet when computers began to take off in the 1970s, it became clear that the phone network spoke a different language - analogue not digital.
What does anyone do when they don't understand a language and need to speak with someone? Bring in a translator. In this case, the translator in question was a modem.
When connected to modems, two computers would essentially have a chat over the phone and pass along data that could be understood and delivered to the end user - you. As you dialled-in to the internet, you would connect with your internet service provider's (ISP) computer and then be passed on to other computers all over the world.
But the computers chatted really slowly. Back then, downloading one song of around 4MB could take about 30 minutes - painful!
Broadband changed the game by essentially turning your phone lines from narrow country roads into multi-lane motorways, complete with a dedicated voice channel (for calls) and lanes for uploading and downloading data.
Up until 2017, broadband was still mostly delivered to homes via the 19th Century copper wires that the first telephone companies set up across the UK and were never supposed to carry computer data. Today however, cable or fibre-optic broadband is available for most homes (more on that later) and is purpose-built for navigating the online world, providing speeds up to 20x faster than traditional broadband.
You, me and the ISP
Regardless of whether you use dial-up, old-school broadband or fibre-optic, you'll still sign up for an internet service provider (ISP), which supplies that internet connection.
All of your internet connected devices - phones, computers, TVs - request access through your ISP in order to access the servers of your chosen website or service. Those servers, in turn, will have to connect to their own ISP before talking to yours - networks of networks make up the internet.
Well-known ISPs in the UK include:
Each ISP works a bit like this:
With every one of us relying on a stepping stone between our devices and our content of choice, it's worth being aware of the influence ISPs can have over those choices and our ability to get online.
We conducted a survey of over 2,000 Brits on this and it seems that if an ISP decided to block sites, it could result in increasing numbers of Brits switching - 64 per cent of Brits would be likely to switch ISP if they put blocks in place
In reality, this means millions could be considering a switch as nearly six million having tried to access a site that was blocked in the last week - nearly one in 10 across the country.
It's an issue even more pertinent for those aged 18 to 34, with nearly half (45 per cent) having tried to access a site that was blocked at some point.
While ISPs might block sites for various reasons, a quarter of Brits said they would switch ISP if they were blocked from viewing adult sites - with those living with partners the most likely to do so!
of Brits would be likely to switch ISP if they out blocks in place
of 18-34 year olds have tried to access a site that was blocked by their ISP
What does fair internet look like?
A basic household utility like water, electricity and now broadband, should be easily accessible to all, priced according to the service provided and, of course, how much we use it. With just under half of Brits saying they spend 10 hours or more engaging with content on the internet per week, it's fair to say Britain is a nation that relies on the internet.
MoneySuperMarket's resident broadband expert, Emily Thompson, outlines several factors that affect a household's perception of whether they are being delivered fair internet access, and it's also the basis that we use to evaluate the UK as a whole.
Actual broadband speed
Are you getting the internet speed that was advertised to you upon choosing a package? Is it fair that someone else on the same package might get faster speeds than you?
Trickier to judge, but is the monthly cost worth the level of service that you personally expect? Also, would you accept that one region might pay less for the same package as your region?
Does your household experience frequent drop outs in service? Does the speed you get heavily fluctuate?
One of the largest motivators for many to switch utility providers; how happy do you feel with the service you receive when things go wrong, or you need help?
Access to content
Are you able to access all the sites and apps that you want to through your broadband connection? Are you blocked from what you're looking for?
Are you able to purchase the package that is most appropriate for your household? Do you have sufficient choice between packages so that you only pay for the service you require?
The UK’s broadband imbalance
Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, found in December 2017 that millions of households lack what it deemed as acceptable broadband access. Considering our factors for what constitutes "fair internet" in the UK, that paints a problematic picture.
More specifically, 4 per cent of UK homes and offices, about 1.1 million properties, were not able to access speeds of at least 10Mbps - the modern internet's minimum speed requirements. Termed the "internet apartheid" by The Guardian, it is typically rural homes that lose out compared to the metropolitan centres currently powered by super-fast broadband - 17 per cent of rural homes were below the suggested minimum speed, compared with 2 per cent in more developed areas.
Despite the government's public announcement that high-speed broadband would be a legal right for all UK citizens by 2020, data from April this year shows that two-thirds of England's counties are below the national average download speed, and again the vast majority are rural counties.
Difference from total
Difference from fastest
Difference from fastest
The UK as a whole has been shown to lag behind on the world stage when it comes to broadband speed, recently dropping from 31st to 34th fastest country in the world, behind 24 European countries. Singapore was, for the second year running, listed as number one.
According to MoneySuperMarket's internal data, the average speed of the internet in the UK (since 2014) is 16.44 Mbps. While this might be enough to stream films and TV in HD on a single device, the infuriating buffer wheel might make an appearance if phones, tablets, laptops and TVs are trying to access online services at the same time.
Within the country, there's a big discrepancy in terms of increase in broadband speed since 2014. While the overall speed has increased in all areas of the UK, Guernsey might well be looking over at their neighbour with jealous eyes as their internet speed has only increased by 64% when compared to Jersey's 775%.
Even within cities the increase in speed varies considerably. When looking at London over the last few years, Western Central London - one of the biggest business hubs of the country - has seen a 145% increase in speed, which seems fairly good until we compare it to Eastern Central London's 352%.
Similarly, one in 10 Londoners recently claimed their internet is 'very slow', whilst 27 per cent said that it was 'very fast' - the highest proportion of any region. This suggests there may be some truth to the claim that certain areas in London are under-serviced when compared to others.
The lowest download speed in the country is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lerwick on the Shetlands, with an average speed of 9.25 Mbps. The slowest speed on the mainland, however, doesn't come in much faster - Llandrindod Wells in central Wales clocks in at an average of just 9.35 Mbps.
Faster internet for gaming
Interestingly, Brits do seem to be taking steps to try and get a faster internet experience, especially when it comes to gaming.
Our research shows that nearly a third (31 per cent) of households have changed their internet package as a result of online video games such as Fortnite, costing each household an average of £184.32.
Internet speed: expectations vs. reality
It's all well and good signing up for a new broadband deal promising super-fast speeds, but many households may have realised that "speeds up to X Mbps" can often be misleading - in some cases, only 10 per cent of customers receive that upper limit.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled that ISPs are no longer able to use this wording and instead will be required to advertise a median average speed that's been calculated between 8pm and 10pm - typically the most congested time for internet access.
Since this ruling, the data shows that the average broadband speeds provided by some of the top ISPs in the UK have decreased by 5.74 Mbps. The largest decrease in speed was seen by BT Broadband on their medium fibre package, which saw a 16 Mbps dip in average speed - overall, BT Broadband averaged a 10.67 Mbps speed decrease.
Conversely, Virgin Media saw a 9.25 Mbps increase in speed, showing perhaps that it's better to undersell and overdeliver!
Steps like this taken by the ASA will help push forward a fairer internet experience for all, but there might be a small shock to the system when we start seeing lower speeds listed in ads and online - at least the public will be more likely to receive the advertised speed.
What is net neutrality?
When discussing "fair internet" earlier, the factors that we listed made one vital assumption - that each website or app, no matter how big or small, was treated equally by your ISP. If you signed up for 10Mbps broadband for example, you'd get that speed (or hopefully close to it) regardless of how you were using it.
Net neutrality is the name for the concept behind that assumption. It states that access to every site on the internet should be granted equally, without charging differently for any person, platform or way of accessing the data.
In other words…
Imagine your hometown has two places to buy pizza - Pizza Land and Joe's Pizza. In normal cases, you'd decide whether to buy pizza from one or the other depending on the quality of the pizza, the service or the value for money.
But what happens if your phone company wants a slice of the action and forges a special deal with Pizza Land, favouring calls to them over Joe's? So now people phoning to order pizza from Joe's have to wait in a queue behind people calling Pizza Land. People aren't going to be waiting around for Joe's when there's a faster service available, even if the quality of their pizza is superior. Net Neutrality acts as a safeguard against this - all traffic and all websites are given the same priority, meaning you are served everything at an equal pace
Net neutrality has been dominating the headlines in the United States since late 2017 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to remove Obama-era protections following intense lobbying from large US telecoms companies.
The repeal of net neutrality in the US so far has been messy. Reportedly, eight out of 10 US citizens support net neutrality and as a result, state governors are issuing orders of defiance and enacting their own laws of protection.
Here in the UK, net neutrality is currently protected by EU regulation, but with Brexit on the horizon there's a chance things could change. How the net neutrality situation plays out in the US will undoubtedly influence policy decisions taken in London after March 2019.
On June 11th 2018, net neutrality protections in the US officially ceased to exist. According to the ACLU, "this means [internet service providers in the US] will be able to engage in content-based discrimination. Internet content it likes - for political or financial reasons - will be delivered at top speeds, while content it disfavours will be slowed or even blocked."
Immediate repercussions are yet to be felt - the ISPs in the US will take their time but advocates in favour of net neutrality suggest that this will limit competition in the long run. Ultimately, this lack of competition may stop consumers getting the services and content they want.
The commonly posed question is whether start-ups like YouTube or Spotify would have been so successful if ISPs favoured their own services and discriminated against others.
Arguments for and against net neutrality
As is to be expected, the conversations around net neutrality are complex, nuanced and certainly not one-sided. Cut through the noise and you'll find a number of arguments both for and against net neutrality protections.
Reasons to keep net neutrality:
Net neutralities forces companies to treat all traffic equally. You can access the sites you want, when you want.
Entrepreneurs and start-ups have the same chance of success as established players, with net neutrality playing a big role in ensuring emerging companies can thrive.
Broadband providers can't prioritise their own content through favourable deals and faster speeds.
Reasons to get rid of net neutrality:
Removing net neutrality could encourage investment in the wider network infrastructure, providing faster speeds for many.
No more buffering?
Not all sites are created equal: video streaming sites and online gaming require a much greater amount of resource from ISPs than largely text-based sites. These sites could pay a premium to ISPs to ensure no buffering, resulting in a better experience.
Too fast for rules
The internet moves so quickly and is so vast that any rules put in place may quickly become obsolete - net neutrality may become out of date whether we like it or not.
Why does it impact the UK?
Aside from disparity of broadband access, the issue of net neutrality has been less controversial in the UK. The principles are enshrined in British laws as a result of the European Union's Regulation on Open Internet Access in 2015.
It is also less of an immediate issue as our broadband market is much more competitive than in the US, which is largely dominated by a handful of companies. As a result, competition between UK ISPs gives households the ability to switch if they are unhappy with their service.
However, with the changes currently underway across the pond and with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the Great Repeal Bill, UK ISPs will be watching closely. That being said, even if the UK government decided to revoke the EU laws on net neutrality, we have still committed to a Universal Service Obligation (USO) that deems broadband access to be a legal requirement.
So, nothing for people to worry about then? Not quite.
BEREC, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, is the regulator for telecoms companies across Europe that publishes guidelines for net neutrality rules. The UK's relationship with the single market is likely to influence whether the UK also leaves BEREC, which, if it happens, will lead to complications around these laws. Emily predicts the following could happen if we did leave both:
The UK's relationship with the single market is likely to influence whether the UK also leaves BEREC, which, if it happens, will lead to complications around these laws.
Emily predicts the following could happen if we did leave both:
Read more about it here
- After leaving the EU, the UK will lose influence over the EU telecoms rules - and if the UK wants continued access to the single market, it will be bound to follow regulations it has a limited ability to influence.
- Therefore, in the longer term post-Brexit, the UK could look to revisit some areas of legislation with a "lighter touch" approach and leave BEREC if we can't wield influence.
- There are three contentious areas for the immediate future that are currently governed by BEREC agreements:
- Net neutrality
- 5G rollout across Europe
- International roaming
- If the UK left BEREC it would be able to set its own standards on these areas - i.e. rural broadband subsidies, an independent UK stance on net neutrality, UK standards and approvals for mergers.
- Leaving BEREC could also create opportunities for telecoms companies and content providers. Currently under BEREC, providers of content services are not regulated - but with the lines blurring between traditional TV and online content services, the UK might want to revisit this. Net neutrality gives greater protection to freedom of content and less control to the ISPs to be able to throttle, prioritise and charge differently for content use.
- Their argument against net neutrality is that variable costs will subsidise the growth of infrastructure required to keep up with the increasing demands for bandwidth generated by gaming companies and video streaming sites.
- However, it's important to note that any deviations the UK makes from the EU laws will create challenges for companies operating in both markets - there could be conflicting guidance and operational issues with trying to run different business models by region to capitalise on the variances
- The UK is likely to want to retain the right for UK citizens to use mobile data across the EU without incurring roaming charges - so they will need to weigh up the impact of leaving or deviating from the current BEREC agreements
Net neutrality laws in the UK: are they already being breached?
With multiple telecoms companies operating in the UK recently under investigation by Ofcom to see if they were breaking EU net neutrality rules, it seems that the idea might already be under threat in the UK. These companies offered access to popular content services (e.g. Netflix, Apple Music, etc.) without it counting towards a customer's regular data allowance - arguably prioritising one company's data over a competitor's.
Ofcom's investigation set out to find if there has been any serious blocking or slowing of access to legal websites or internet services, to conclude whether these companies are breaking the law. Despite the probe eventually being dropped, the independent body had reason to believe that traffic management had been occurring as a result of these practices.
And it had also been expressed that at least one mobile ISP offered certain tariffs that restricted tethering, thereby potentially conflicting with the rule that users should be able to use equipment of their choice.
So, the question of whether to keep net neutrality in the UK might be a moot one - it seems that some big companies may already be taking steps to try and circumvent net neutrality laws in order to gain an advantage in the market.
What you can do to help keep your internet service fair
The question of whether internet access in the UK is fair has no black and white answer. As we increasingly access the internet through our phones and apps, ISPs are moving to provide enticing customer benefits for extra or "zero-rated" mobile data allowances.
Regardless of whether we're talking about cable, fibre optic or mobile broadband, the conversation around net neutrality and fair access applies to all.
The fact that companies have begun offering access to popular content services without it counting towards a customer's regular data allowance is actually pretty attractive to customers who use those services, despite potentially breaching net neutrality laws. But, in the long term we risk creating monopolies where companies are no longer incentivised to provide the best possible service at the lowest cost.
Whether we're talking about broadband, energy or insurance providers, MoneySuperMarket will always champion the advantages of a competitive market and having the option to switch when you're no longer happy.
You can fight to keep your internet service fair by being aware of what matters to you and ensuring that your ISP knows that - which may only be when you decide to leave! Compare packages between different providers, hunt for the best value deal and continue to use the internet in new and exciting ways.
If you feel strongly about net neutrality, disparity of broadband access or any other topic we've outlined, here are details of relevant not-for-profit organisations and governing bodies you can contact to support the cause or to report issues:
- Electronic Frontier Foundation www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fight for the Future www.fightforthefuture.org email@example.com
- Complaints about Broadband Access www.ombudsman-services.org/sectors/communications/contact-us