I'm in Shanghai right now, typing and filing this post from the back of a taxi, thanks to the use of a MiFi device (on-the-move Wi-Fi connectivity rocks). I just had a very interesting chat with Huawei's wireless marketing chief, Lars Bondelind, and certain ideas on the issue of net neutrality have crystalised.
Bondelind noted that, while mobile operators' data traffic is indeed rising drastically, revenues are steady. So far, so familiar: I've heard this many times over from the operators themselves. However, contrary to the soaring costs that operators tend to say will come along with the move to LTE, Bondelind indicated that operators are really pushing to keep their costs stable, and it's up to infrastructure providers such as Huawei to make that happen. In short, the operators will provide greater speeds at, over time, a roughly fixed cost.
Why does this matter? Because I suspect the operators are overstating their capacity crunch; they've deliberately and sensibly overprovisioned, and they're not yet at the limits. Overstating their dilemma means they can lobby strongly for regulators to not mandate net neutrality. I'm not talking about basic traffic management — no-one in the industry really thinks that's unnecessary — but rather about the ability to create tiers of service or, even more worryingly, charge content providers to prioritise their content.
Both of these present problems for the user: a guaranteed high tier of service creates new opportunities for the operators to upsell, but it also means lower quality for the plebs. As regards the second ploy, well, none of us really wants to see familiar services degraded because their providers wouldn't pay up.
The operators have got themselves into this mess by racing to the bottom in terms of mobile broadband pricing. Now they want to make more money again, and they want to do so at the expense of the way we understand internet connectivity to work. Providers such as Huawei, along with the general laws of the relationship between economics and technological advances, will likely ensure that more capacity becomes available at more-or-less a fixed cost (bear in mind that the upgrade to LTE and new kit will also mean more energy and spectrum efficiency for the operators), so this is more about want rather than need.
What's the answer? Do we want to see everyone's mobile broadband prices go up a bit? Should tiered quality of services become a reality and, if so, will transparency really protect the consumer? Should the operators just reap what they have sown? I don't pretend to have the answers, but I'm fairly sure these are the questions.