Towards a 1-800 model for net neutrality

Rob Powell/Telecom Ramblings
17 Apr 2012

Net neutrality storm clouds are gathering again, particularly in the US, and battle lines are being drawn.

The flashpoint right now is Comcast’s decision to have its Xfinity streaming content not count against its bandwidth caps, but it’s not just Comcast. AT&T and Verizon are working on related ideas in which content providers would pay to have their traffic counted against data caps. While all this looks like it will develop into a purely partisan disagreement, I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t something useful buried in the idea.

Let me start by assert something that in today’s media is perhaps not obvious. The positions of network neutrality supporters and network operators are not diametrically opposed. Nor are they parallel of course, but this is not a zero sum game. At the core, network neutrality supporters want a fair, unthrottled playing field that encourages innovation and freedom of usage, while carriers want traffic growth economically linked to revenue growth so that their network investments are justifiable.

Rumors have been circling about the major wireless carriers implementing a model similar to that for 1-800 numbers in the voice business, where content providers can pay to be cap-free. I’m as suspicious as anyone and we don’t know the details of the actual 1-800-number-style plans under development, but suppose someone put out a grand compromise with the following features:

  • Non-discriminatory cap exclusion would be allowed - Any app developer can choose to pay to have traffic generated by the app be excluded from bandwidth caps, but on a per-GB/TB basis across all subscribers at a fixed price. No special deals for large providers.
  • A minimum threshold to encourage innovation – The first XYZ amount of bandwidth generated monthly across all subscribers for apps that have signed up would be free. This would mean that new apps have the chance to gain momentum - and hence cash flow - before having to start writing checks.
  • Carriers must track traffic usage reliably for registered apps – If they wish to tie revenues to this, they must be able to quantify it properly.
  • Apps can choose not to participate – especially low-data-usage apps, which can convince their customers that their apps are not a threat to their cap.
  • No filtering based on functionality – Carriers may only apply this regime in the context of traffic volumes. If Skype or Instagram or whoever disrupts a competing carrier product within these rules, then so be it.

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