For years during the network neutrality debate, some supporters warned of a future that involved customers paying more money if they wanted to access certain content
. You've probably seen this graphic
thrown around a few times, suggesting fantasy broadband tiers based on the websites you'd like to visit. While you'd hope outright content blocking would never happen, there have been some interesting responses Internet wide this week to a rather -- uh-- bold presentation made by deep packet inspection vendors Allot and Openet, who recently sold ISPs on a future than involves wireless customers being billed differently for data, depending on whether they're using YouTube or Facebook.
The must read presentation
(pdf) focused on the potential to "generate revenue with application-aware charging models" using deep packet inspection (DPI) hardware. The sales pitch in no uncertain terms involves wireless ISPs discriminating content traffic at its source, charging a toll for competing content -- but not for access to an ISPs own services.
On page 5, we're shown poor ISPs engaged in the Sisyphean feet of lugging Internet content to the irrational monetization promised land. On page 7, an ISP is shown charging customers 2 cents per MB for facebook, 3 euros per month for Skype, and fifty cents per month to access Youtube -- but nothing to access the ISPs own content
. While there have been divergent opinions on what a neutrality violation is over the years, it's hard to argue this doesn't fit the bill. In fact, it almost seems like satire.
The proposal is particulary absurd, given that if followed through it would lead to a fractured Internet (my Facebook only plan (TM) won't allow me to click that link
, sorry). As you might expect, the presentation quickly got the attention of consumer groups. In an e-mail to Broadband Reports, Free Press Research Director Derek Turner didn't mince words. "Mobile wireless services will never be viable competitors to the telco-cable duopoly if this is their future, and these discriminatory practices will destroy the mobile Internet as an open platform for innovation."
Deep packet inspection technology has many legitimate uses, and is only as "bad" as the company using it. Allot and Openet list Verizon and AT&T as clients -- the latter making it very clear for years they'd love to impose additional toll layers on the Internet -- even if those tolls are completely detached from reality
. In this case Allot and Openet also make their goal very clear: total discrimination based on source content and additional toll layers that may or may not be based on any real-world economics. There's no confusing the goal if you read the presentation. It also becomes clear why AT&T and Verizon have been fighting so hard against network neutrality rules for wireless if these are the pricing models being considered.
We've explored at length how ISPs are terrified of becoming "dumb pipes," as voice and traditional TV become just data and content and service providers (Google Voice, for example) start encroaching on revenues many ISP executives incorrectly believe is their god-given birthright. Turf protection
sits at the heart of the ISP push to charge by the byte, just as it does here. However, there's a fairly large chasm between what carriers want and what they get, as there is between a DPI vendor's sales pitch and what the public will tolerate.
So could an ISP get away with pricing tiers based on content? With neutrality attention currently high, the Allot and Openet dream scenario involving such stark discrimination seems unlikely. Still, there's a very thin line between normal smart network engineering or gaming/service prioritization (see: Gamerail
) -- and more nefarious efforts. As we've seen throughout the neutrality debate, it's easy for ISPs to conflate normal network management with these kinds of anti-competitive pipe dreams, using congested networks or stifled network investment as the ever-present bogeyman should you not agree with their pricing visions.
The problem with new DPI technology, as it is with ISP efforts to impose high per-GB overages, is that here in the States there isn't a whole lot stopping such pricing models from quickly getting out of hand. Our regulators are outgunned and timid at best, and a lack of competition in most markets isn't acting as a deterrent either. As such, while some will suggest fears of a ridiculously-fractured Internet are overblown, here you have a very clear presentation showing that's precisely what is being considered. Over the next decade, especially on the wireless front, there will be a very fine line between reasonable network management -- and all out carrier warfare on the consumer wallet and content competitors.