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Net neutrality? We've heard of it, says Ofcom

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Ofcom's annual plan is out, setting the regulator's priorities for the next 12 months, and while much of it is structured diagrams and aspirational statements there are some snippets worthy of greater attention.

Ofcom has, for example, decided that treating all packets of internet traffic as equals without discriminating against particular protocols and services - trendily known as net neutrality - is a non-issue in the UK.

While some mobile operators are blocking access to some services, the free market will sort that out - though that market might need a little more greasing to make switching easier. Elsewhere the regulator accepts that the free market - in the form of spectrum auctions - can't always deliver greatest utilisation, so alternatives need to be considered.

Ofcom publishes a plan every year, mostly restating the objectives of the regulator but also highlighting upcoming significant events (such as the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, 2014) and updating on progress towards particular goals. This time around (pdf, mostly structured diagrams and aspirational statements) the goals include relicensing ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 as well as opening up the White Spaces, and doing everything with slightly less money than last year.

This year the funding is down £4.4m, to £117m, which we're told is a cut of 6.5 per cent allowing for inflation. That's in line with the four-year programme to cut the overall budget by 28.2 per cent by next year, and (unlike last year) there's no Olympics to pay for - which has got to help.

But there is a commitment to make switching ADSL providers easier, particularly when the access is coming over (BT) Openreach infrastructure. How to simplify that process is far from clear, so Ofcom will be pushing out a consultation on the question in the summer.

On the subject of broadband infrastructure, more access to BT's poles and ducts is promised for rural areas, so slinging up (or dropping down) wires should get cheaper for local broadband projects.

BT, and others, might be called upon to share fibres too, delivering competitors' connections with a technique called Wavelength Unbundling - that's in the appendix of "things to consider" rather than planned for the next 12 months, but it's an interesting idea.

Ofcom is tasked with keeping an eye on ISP traffic management, but has said that as long as customers are informed then ISPs (both fixed and mobile) can do what they like. Today that means some mobile operators are blocking Skype and some aren't, so Ofcom reckons customers who want Skype can just switch networks and there's no cause for regulatory action - though it intends to keep a close eye on the subject.

Less daunting is the licence renewal for C4, C5, and ITV, which comes up at the end of 2014. There's little likelihood of either licence changing significantly, but the renewal offers a chance of renegotiating remits for the other less-profitable things required by the licences.

When it comes to Pay TV the regulator is in something of a quandary. The Competition Appeals Tribunal, responding to Sky's appeal against being forced to let competitors offer Sky Sports, ruled that Sky did not have enough power to upset the market. Meanwhile the Competition Commission, in an unrelated ruling, decided that Sky's dominance means the Pay TV industry is not competitive. Ofcom has an obligation to intercede if the latter is true, but has decided to play it safe and "continue to monitor developments".

Where there's no TV available Ofcom promises to fill the gaps with White Space devices, planning a pilot later this year and deployment in 2014. Filling the TV white spaces is only the first step, with the Ministry of Defence earmarking three other bands for unlicensed use based on the same system of database lookups. If the technique can be proven then the potential is enormous.

The MoD is particularly keen to share thanks to Administrated Incentive Pricing (AIP), which makes those who were allocated radio frequencies pay market rates to keep them. That's helped convince the MoD to auction off two other bands as well, at 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz, though as a private sale that's officially nothing to do with Ofcom.

But AIP will be a big deal to Vodafone and Telefonica, who were both allocated prime slots at 900MHz back in the last century, in which to launch the country's first mobile networks. Since then they've paid a peppercorn rent (well, not quite peppercorn but well below AIP rates) but they are going to have to start paying AIP based on the prices paid in last month's 4G auction. There'll be a consultation on that in the summer, which should provoke vigorous debate.

If that's not enough Ofcom will also consult on how to shift Freeview down the dial to clear 700MHz by 2018. It'll also need to deal with the usual complaints about porn channels showing pornography, swearing on Big Brother and TV psychics claiming to be psychic.

So, all in all, it's another busy year for the UK regulator that everybody seems to love to hate. ®

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