Dana Blankenhorn (my fellow ZDNet blogger who one year ago saw promise in T-Mobile's Web N' Walk service), eat your heart out. The walled-garden is back.
According to a ZDNet UK report, at the same time T-Mobile is rolling out super high bandwidth wireless broadband network, it's basically telling its customers they can't use it for certain applications of their choosing. Namely internet telephony (VoIP) and instant messaging. Wrote ZDNet UK's David Meyer:
T-Mobile anticipates that the first phase of HSDPA will see consistent speeds of around 1Mbps with the possibility of 1.8Mbps, but hopes for speeds of over 7Mbps by the end of 2007......Such high speeds would seem to make the new data card ideal for applications such as Internet telephony and instant messaging. However, the fine print for Web'n'Walk Pro reveals that these are explicitly banned by T-Mobile, and any user caught running the applications risks expulsion from the network.
In other words, you go out and buy that new Windows Mobile-based smartphone knowing that you can load third party applications on it (for example, AOL or Yahoo's instant messenger or Skype). But, once you take advantage of your smartphone's smarts in that way, you could end up being kicked off the network. The story also speculates that one reason T-Mobile might be doing this is because it plans to launch its own VoIP client.
Sound familiar? Sure does. In a number of ways. For example, wireless carriers are notorious for shutting off certain handset functionality (at the hardware level) before selling the device to its customes. This is why I advise handset buyers looking for the latest greatest cell phone not to get too excited about the feature lists that are provided by device manufacturers. If a wireless carrier perceives any feature -- for example, the ability to manually select which network your phone connects to at any given moment -- as a threat to its business, they usually disable it. In the case of smartphones, they can't really disable your ability to load third party software onto the phone. So these sorts of policies that prohibit certain applications is just another means to the same end.
You can also file this under "Net Neutrality." It's a reminder that the ISPs are in charge of how their bandwidth gets used and that just because you have access to the Internet from your computer or your smartphone doesn't mean you'll get to use it the way you want to. Through policies like T-Mobile's that prohibit the use of certain services, or these so-called charge-back plans where an ISP might try to charge Yahoo or Google on the basis of the traffic that its customers are sending to those sites, the Internet is being stripped of the level playing field (aka: neutrality) that IP (the underlying protocol that makes the Net tick) was designed for in the first place.
As a result, just like we may have to take the smarts out of smartphones, we may need to take the I out of ISP. After all, if all we're getting is access to some part of the Internet that the ISP says we can have access to, a part that coincidentally (not) includes the ISP's proprietary services, well, that's not the Internet anymore. If we go down this slippery slope, we'll end up with tens or hundreds of Internets, none of which are are completely free to interoperate with the others. Users will be forced to read the fine print like T-Mobile's to figure out just exactly what sort of Internet they're getting. The Internet that we all know and love? Or some bastardization of it?
T-Mobile isn't the only company whose existing business is threatened by high bandwidith IP and that's taking such action. Here, on Between the Lines, I've amplified the alarm that Bob Frankston has been sounding about how Baby Bells like Verizon have the nearly exclusive right to run a high bandwidth fiber optic network to your doorstep, advertise how wonderful they are for bringing such innovation to you, and then reserve 99 percent of it for their own applications (eg: video on demand). It's no wonder that companies like Google -- the ones that could be on the short end of the Net Non-Neutrality stick -- are looking for ways to do an end run around the ISPs that are hinting at extortion or no connectivity.