I wrote a blog on the subject of Net Neutrality a while back when the FCC was in the process of putting into place rules for the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with regards to how they manage traffic from different sources within their networks. Essentially the FCC ruled that all traffic has to be treated the same, i.e., in a fair manner. At that time I noted that this was easy enough to say, but could be difficult to implement, considering the diversity of the data and the kinds of traffic carried on the Internet. At that time I noted that the FCC should act with a soft touch with regards to enforcement of regulation.
It turns out that we did not have to wait that long to see an implementation of traffic management in a ISP’s system that seems to violate the FCC’s rules. But this implementation is being presented by the vendor as a feature that benefits the customer. Witness T-mobile’s Binge On service.
The data service paradigm for most mobile service providers in the US is that you pay the vendor based on the amount of data that you use, or wish to use (if you sign up for monthly quotas). So anything that reduces the component of the data that you receive that actually counts towards measurement of your usage should be considered a positive for the customer according to T-Mobile. (Of course, this assumes that the customer has signed up for receiving an amount of data that really matches what he or she needs.)
But what has happened in the recent past is that the mainstream service providers have been trying to force customers into service packages that include a lot more data than they need, with the hope that they get hooked onto new services that will chew up this additional bandwidth resource. This is what happens when folks start streaming video services on mobile networks. As usage increases and begins to match what the customer has actually subscribed for, he or she will become more inclined to pay for additional data services on the network. (This will also serve as justification for the mobile service providers to lobby to buy up more of the nation’s bandwidth resources for their own networks.)
Enter T-mobile. They say that they will not count the amount of data that a customer who has signed up for Binge On receives for certain video streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc..) against the customer’s data usage limits. It sounds good, but what they are also doing is controlling the amount of the data in those video streams for people who are signed up. They are in fact lowering the quality of the video being delivered, i.e., they are treating these video streams differently from how they would treat them normally in their networks.
You might say that this is OK since the customer knows that this happening. It turns out that the customer really may not know what is going on. It seems like this service is being offered today as an “opt out” service, i.e., unless you mention anything, you are signed up for it. Also, it has been observed today that the customer’s video services are throttled even for video service providers that have not signed up with T-mobile for supporting the service. It is not clear if the customer still pays for the data being received in such circumstances.
What is happening is exactly along the lines of my expectations. Due to the nature of the Internet today, there are bound to be scenarios that develop to do not meet the notion of net neutrality in a simplistic fashion. The FCC will have to adapt, and as it does, the set of detailed regulations that need to be considered will tend to change and continue to expand.
When people complain about government and bureaucracy, it is useful to remember that most of this happens a result of people and organizations creating situations where they try to manipulate the system to their own benefit, where simplistic approaches for enforcement will no longer work. Very often this is done in the pursuit of big money, not necessarily the betterment of man. After all, who will argue that entertainment, which is the application for most of the streaming video that tends to dominate the bandwidth usage of the Internet today, is most essential for our living, and should dominate the use of our resources.
Its a crazy world we live in!