Yesterday, AT&T announced something that sent shivers and shockwaves around the cybersphere. Hundreds of blog posts and articles condemning the position sprang up.
Basically, what AT&T proclaimed was the Internet-equivalent of the 1-800 toll-free phone services. How does that work? Suppose you are a commercial organization which depends on people calling you, or if you are some kind of a service provider who wants to have your customers call you for complaints but don’t want them paying for the call, then you can pay for the incoming calls you receive on the toll-free number.
AT&T announced something exactly similar for web browsing.
Mobile data plans ( GPRS, EDGE, 3G, LTE) have a cap on the data usage. Even the so called ‘unlimited usage’ plans have a ‘fair usage’ limit after which your bandwidth is severely throttled.
AT&T announced that they are allowing ‘sponsored content’. Which means that for visiting certain sponsored sites, the end user won’t have to pay the data usage charges- the amount of data usage for that website will be separated out from the user’s cap- and will be paid for by the ‘sponsor’ – which in this case, might be the company which wants people to visit its pages.
Makes perfect sense? No?
Actually, no. According to the views of many informed people, it violates the principle of ‘net neutrality’. What is net neutrality?
There are various definitions, but let me put it simply this way: Net neutrality means every website on the internet, every service which uses the internet, is treated equally. It is ‘democracy for data’.
Which means, for example, that the Internet service provider cannot block or slow down a certain site or service like Skype, Netflix, Viber, Facebook etc.
Who says so? Well, a lot of countries have views on Net Neutrality. The Netherlands recently passed a law on Net Neutrality. Canada has passed the law a long time ago.
In The US, the Federal Communications Commission passed an Open Internet order which went into effect from November 2011. Basically it says that mobile and fixed broadband service providers should not block any services on the internet, and they should not ‘unjustly discriminate’ against any traffic.
So does the new move by AT&T to remove the data cap selectively for ‘sponsored’ websites violate the Open Internet order? Well technically no, because there is no difference in the speed or quality of the service provided to the sponsored content and to the unsponsored content.
But the debate is wide open, because this is in effect interpretable as a kind of discrimination, as users have to pay for visiting some sites and not for some other.
I don’t want to say too much on the subject, the purpose of this post was just to draw attention to this important debate which is currently raging, and will have a great impact on the interplay between Broadband service providers and the OTT players.
Please do read the referenced material. And write in your views and comments!
2. The US Congressional paper on Net neutrality: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40616.pdf