David Prosser: No easy answers on bandwidth charging

Outlook The suggestion yesterday from Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, that Britain might allow internet service providers to charge content providers for the traffic they generate – threatening the principle of net neutrality – is a giant step.

One can see the point. The huge amount of bandwidth that, for instance, the BBC's iPlayer service accounts for is forcing many ISPs to invest heavily in improving their networks. Yet the BBC does not contribute a penny towards the cost of that infrastructure.

On the other hand, even leaving aside the high-minded principles so many on the internet hold dear, there's a pretty horrible competition issue here. If the biggest content providers are able to pay ISPs for their traffic to be prioritised, what hope do their smaller competitors have? How would the iPlayers, YouTubes and Facebooks of tomorrow get started?

This is dangerous territory – and not just for its threat to the democracy and pluralism of the internet that is so admirable. Still, there are no easy answers. An alternative funding model, for instance, would be to charge net users more for the bandwidth they consume. This presumably wouldn't be popular either.

And Mr Vaizey did make one significant contribution yesterday. Though other countries have taken a different approach, he does not believe there is a case for different rules depending on whether you are talking about mobile or fixed-line internet access. That must be right in an age of convergence.