One of the key arguments used by companies who want to see the end of net neutrality is that with growing use of high-bandwidth services like video on demand, or video telephony, there isn't enough bandwidth to go around, and that other services will suffer as a result. This leads them to call for differential pricing, charging more for such services.
Really, though, this is just a ploy to give them an opportunity to sell premium services to companies and to make IP services as complicated and opaque as mobile or fixed line – providing them with even more ways of locking people into expensive and unused plans.
As I mentioned in my submission to the UK government's consultation on net neutrality last year, one possible squaring of this circle is to put the control of bandwidth in the hands of the end-user, not the network provider. That would allow users to prioritise their bandwidth according to their interests – for example, for high-speed online gaming – but without giving even more power to the telecoms companies to tilt the online playing field.
I didn't have any specific suggestions about how that might be done, because it was just a general idea. However, I was confident that someone would come up with the technology once it was needed. It seems we are closer than I thought:
With myriad applications fighting for limited gigabytes on a mobile broadband plan and multiple users fighting for access to a wired home connection, what broadband users need is a connectivity thermostat that they can use to better manage how they access their ISP’s pipes. It’s coming.
On mobile networks, an undisclosed Tier One carrier is testing a new product released Tuesday from Openet, a company I wrote about last week that helps carriers implement personalized pricing plans. Today it launched a product it calls the Subscriber Engagement Engine (SEE). That sounds intimidating, but what it enables isn’t. SEE is a client that resides on a device such as an iPad, Android phone, or other connected device, and ties it back to the policy management and subscriber information on a carrier network. It acts as a bridge and as a layer of abstraction that allows a user to set up policies for their device on an operator’s network.
The examples given in that article – halting access as you near your broadband cap, or logging people's Facebook access – aren't particularly sophisticated, and don't address the net neutrality issues. But the idea is the same: that end users have the capability to monitor and fine-tune the bandwidth that they pay for and use. The great thing is that such technology would cost very little, since it could obviously use boxes running on Linux, as many routers already do. Open sourcing the rest of the code would have obvious advantages in terms of customisation.
So there's really no excuse now for not mandating net neutrality: we have both the need and the means to implement it.