Editor's notebook: Walled gardens in mobile didn't work in 2003, and won't work in 2010...
Net neutrality may seem like an arcane debate best left to cyber-policy wonks. But the future of mobile innovation could be at stake, says silicon.com editor Steve Ranger.
The so-called net neutrality debate has been rumbling on for years. To simplify a complex picture, on one side are those who argue no restrictions should be put on internet access. In particular ISPs should not be allowed to prioritise one type of traffic over another.
On the other side are the ISPs, who want to be able to charge to deliver some internet traffic faster than others, claiming this facility will help them to fund the next generation of internet access.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post Eric Schmidt and Ivan Seidenberg, chief executives of Google and Verizon respectively, yesterday outlined their compromise approach to net neutrality. Google has been an outspoken supporter of net neutrality but has modified its position recently. Its intervention into net neutrality with Verizon is likely to have a big impact on the course of the debate.
The Google-Verizon stance is that consumers should be able to choose whatever internet service they want, go to any legal websites, and use whatever software or applications they desire. On top of that, they argue that prioritisation of internet traffic - slowing down one file so another arrives more quickly - is bad, although there are caveats here about how much flexibility ISPs need to manage their networks and provide services such as health monitoring or optimised gaming.
Will the latest twist to the net neutrality debate hurt mobile internet innovation?
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Some of the policy proposal is very vague and open to interpretation. For example, it says there should be a "presumption against prioritisation of internet traffic - including paid prioritisation", but then goes on to talk of allowing "additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the internet access and video services" such as healthcare monitoring and smart grid services, which seems somewhat contradictory.
But what has really caused a stir is that the two companies argue that these net neutrality rules...
...should not apply to wireless broadband: "The rapidly evolving wireless internet is a different kind of network, with unique technical and operational challenges, demanding different consideration to wireline networks," it says.
For many that has raised the spectre of the development of a paid-for second internet where how fast you get a website could depend on whether the site is paying your mobile operator extra.
Now net neutrality in its purest form is of course a pipedream. The net isn't neutral today: companies invest millions in servers, collocation and high-speed connections to make sure their websites can be accessed quickly.
And some types of traffic are better than others. I want my ISP to slow down or zap spam so my video-chat isn't interrupted. And wireless spectrum is far more limited, and expensive, than wired, so it's understandable that wireless operators want to ration it. But there's a difference between the status quo, with all the inherent problems, and actually legislating to create an uneven playing field.
But giving internet providers the power to decide what traffic arrives faster or slower, based on their own commercial priorities would be a backward step. If an ISP were to deliver traffic from one video-sharing site faster than from its rival, or from one search engine before another because they had been paid to, it's hard to see how this benefits anyone other than the ISP.
It's hard to understand why the broad ideas of net neutrality that Google and Verizon think are a good thing in the wired world don't work in the unwired world. Their ideas might not make economic sense to the suppliers, but a web user will soon expect the same experience whether they are on a fixed broadband connection, wi-fi or wireless. Walled gardens don't work in mobile.
So why should we care? Well, perhaps five years ago when most of the mobile innovation was in Europe, we could ignore the strange wrangling in the US. But now Google with Android and Apple with the iPhone are leading the mobile charge. So anything that could hurt mobile innovation there could hurt us in the longer term.