The New "Net Neutrality" Battle…

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Having Google and Verizon trying to reach their own compromise around net neutrality has me concerned. Having the FCC threatening a regulatory approach to net neutrality also has me concerned.

I’m just not sure which concerns me more.

I absolutely believe in the importance of net neutrality. It is the driving force behind the evolution and phenomenal growth of the entire web universe. It has allowed tiny startups to have global impact, and has provided the foundation for outsiders to challenge the status quo within institutions and across industries. Preserving net neutrality is central to securing the future viability of the internet.

The thought of having two major corporations – both representing today’s status quo – sitting down together to define what net neutrality should mean for everyone is a bit unsettling. I completely understand the FCC’s reaction and side with their desire to preserve an open internet:

Any outcome, any deal that doesn’t preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet for consumers and entrepreneurs will be unacceptable.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

So what concerns me with the FCC?

It’s really simple – ‘Regulated Net Neutrality’ isn’t the same as ‘Net Neutrality’. The net neutrality that has existed so far has been based on an ethos – a shared way of looking at the net. It can easily adapt to change and make exceptions as needed, because any decisions that are made are done through the lens of open and equal access.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how regulation works.

Regulations are lists of rules – not a code or belief. Some will be vague and others specific, but they will boil down to a list of behavioral do’s and dont’s. Once regulations are passed, the ‘moral code’ they are based on in some ways becomes irrelevant. Lawyers and courts start to become the driving forces behind what is and isn’t acceptable. The specific language of a regulation gets parsed, loopholes get added, and the process ultimately becomes political.

So where does that leave us?

On one side we have an internet defined by lawyers, courts, and politicians, and on the other side an internet defined by large corporations.

I’m simply not in a hurry to embrace either one right now.

I’m still not ready to walk away from the ethos of net neutrality.

Verizon Wireless Looking To Follow AT&T's Lead…

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According to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, it appears that Verizon – like AT&T – may be getting ready to implement a tiered data plan of their own, eliminating their popular prix fixe unlimited data option in the process. If this ends up being the case, it would mean the two largest wireless providers in the US will both be working to discourage bandwidth consumption on their networks, something that could end up being a big drag on the development of mobile services and other non-phone mobile technologies.

The irony here is that both of these carriers were willing to sell unlimited data plans when they knew that the devices they were offering them on couldn’t really make use of it. Now that mobile devices have finally started to catch up, those plans are being eliminated. On top of that, as carriers continue their rollout of 4G/LTE networks (which theoretically can offer significantly higher speeds), folks will simply find themselves running over their usage limits more quickly and racking up whatever overage charges their carriers’ may assess (which can sometimes be frighteningly expensive).

What’s desperately needed in the wireless space is innovation. The structural monopolies enjoyed by incumbent carriers make it easier for them to cut out any meaningful competition that could impact their businesses. The status quo favors them, so any change in the fundamental structure of the market isn’t welcome. They understand that their businesses depend in large part on preserving these advantages, making them less then ideal agents of change in this space.

Ultimately, the real innovation needed here will, by it’s very nature, be disruptive. It will upsets the marketplace and redefine today’s accepted terms of business. Given the nature of how wireless spectrum is managed, innovation will also involve more than just new technologies and algorithms. It will require a reconsideration of the regulatory and licensing frameworks that currently govern the deployment of wireless infrastructure, and demand a fresh look at the way access to the airwaves is allocated. It may also require that a larger chunk of spectrum be allocated specifically in support of the development and deployment of more creative wireless data solutions. There is some incredible research being done in this area, but it needs a path to commercialization if it’s going to get the funding it needs to become viable.

We will never see the promised wireless revolution take hold if the only options available to consumers are congested networks or capped and overpriced plans.

Change urgently needs to happen.

Making Sense Of AT&T's Shift To Metered Wireless…

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att-logo-parentalBoth the iPhone and iPad are a big part of my digital life. To put it mildly, I was a bit upset when AT&T announced yesterday that – effective next week – they are doing away with their unlimited data plan options across all of their smartphones and devices.

From that point on, the closest option they will offer is what they call their ‘DataPro’ plan:

DataPro: Provides 2 gigabytes (GB) of data – for example, enough to send/receive 10,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 1,500 emails with attachments, plus view 4,000 Web pages, plus post 500 photos to social media sites, plus watch 200 minutes of streaming video – for $25 per month. Should a customer exceed 2 GB during a billing cycle, they will receive an additional 1 GB of data for $10 for use in the cycle. Currently, 98% of AT&T smartphone customers use less than 2 GB of data a month on average.

While 98% of AT&T smartphone users may actually use less that 2GB of data per month, I am sure that the percentage of iPhone users that fall in to that camp will be considerably smaller. Smaller still will be the number of new iPad users that can fit within that 2GB limit. The people crossing this threshold aren’t doing anything crazy. They are simply using the mobile web the way people expect to use it – doing normal things like:

  • listening to Pandora on the iPhone
  • downloading a digital version of Wired magazine (at 500MB per issue)
  • buying a movie before boarding a plane (at ~1.3GB per movie)
  • using any cloud storage application (like MobileMe)
  • sending emails with attached presentations or documents

There is nothing noble going on here with AT&T. They are simply trying to take away the promise of the iPhone and iPad under the guise of lowering prices and protecting their users from that “2% Club” of real data hogs. And while AT&T is going to grandfather anyone that already has an unlimited data plan (good for current iPhone users), this will effectively do away with the month to month nature of the iPad data plan. (If you stop paying that $30 each month for the unlimited 3G service, the only options available to you when you light it up again will be limited plans.)

The real question in my mind though is why is AT&T doing this now?

The easy, obvious answer is that they are trying to get a handle on the increasing load being placed on their network, and this is the best way to make that happen. While I have no doubt that this is part of the reason for AT&T’s move, I believe there is something else going on here.

Something big.

Steve Job’s went out of his way to highlight that Apple had worked with AT&T to offer two attractive month to month data plans, the main one being an unlimited plan at $29.95/mo. The iPad 3G has been shipping for less than 2 months, and now that plan is being killed. The only way I can see that happening is if AT&T was told that something else was being killed as well.

U.S. Exclusivity.

I’m guessing that AT&T agreed to those data plans contingent on remaining the sole carrier with the iPhone, and that they will be free to retool their pricing once that changes. Is it coincidence that he new plan takes effect this coming Monday -the same day that Apple’s WWDC 2010 begins? The same day Steve Jobs is expected to announce the next generation iPhone? And maybe some other type of phone or device?

Let’s see what happens.