Wireless Usage Caps (And Creative Abuses Of Them) Are The New Global Net Neutrality Battlefield

from the this-blog-post-will-not-count-against-your-data-usage-allotment dept

After having their wrists slapped for more ham-fisted neutrality abuses like throttling and blocking, ISPs have been increasingly clever when it comes to ways to abuse their stranglehold over the uncompetitive broadband last mile. On the fixed-line broadband front the major net neutrality battlefield is currently interconnection, with ISPs accused of allowing their peering points to tier 1 operators and content companies to deteriorate in order to glean new direct interconnection payments. This effectively has shifted one major portion of the neutrality debate from the user's connection to the edge of the network.

In mobile, the current net neutrality hotbed is usage caps and so-called "zero rated" apps. In developing countries the practice of zero rating apps is quite common, with major companies like Facebook and Google (see Facebook Zero or Google Free Zone) offering low-income developing nations access to select Internet services. Except we've discussed how an ad-laden, walled garden, corporation-curated version of the Internet isn't always doing these countries much of a favor, and you have to wonder what that vision of the "Internet" evolves into.

Here in the States, the practice of zero rating is rather more nefarious and complicated, but again is presented under the pretense of doing the consumer a favor. AT&T's Sponsored Data, for example, allows deeper-pocketed companies to pay AT&T an additional toll to have their content exempt from user usage caps, something that automatically puts smaller companies at a disadvantage. T-Mobile has similarly experimented with exempting only the biggest music services from user caps, similarly creating an unlevel playing field for smaller companies, independent operations or nonprofits. The real trick of these efforts is that many consumers wind up applauding them not understanding they're supporting an erosion of a healthy, balanced Internet.

Obviously the most ham-fisted abuse of usage caps is simply having your own services exempt from the cap while competing services incur data costs. That's something the Canadian government last week slammed the door on when the CRTC ruled that Canadian providers Bell and Videotron (which we've noted have been exploring this idea for a while) can't exempt their own video content from usage caps. Canadian law Professor Michael Geist notes the government didn't actually use Canadian net neutrality rules to support the decision, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais simply declared the practice a core market abuse:
"At its core, this decision isn’t so much about Bell or Videotron. It’s about all of us and our ability to access content equally and fairly, in an open market that favours innovation and choice,” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a speech delivered Thursday morning in London, Ont. "It may be tempting for large, vertically integrated companies to offer certain perks to their customers, and innovation in its purest form is to be applauded,” Mr. Blais said, adding the CRTC wants to see broadcasters create “new and exciting ways to view content." "But when the impetus to innovate steps on the toes of the principle of fair and open access to content, we will intervene,” he said. "We’ve got to keep the lanes of our bridges unobstructed so that everyone can cross."
Except when faced with such restrictions here in the States, companies like AT&T usually just get more clever about it. AT&T doesn't exempt their content from usage caps, for example, but the practice of letting large companies pay to bypass AT&T's caps is nearly as bad (the CRTC decision didn't address this evolution of the issue, just as the FCC has remained mute on the subject). In other words, we're seeing time and time again that it's easy to violate neutrality even with rules in place. You just have to be a good tap dancer and lobby for neutrality rules with truck sized-loopholes (like the proposal currently being pushed by Thune and Upton here in the States that's most likely co-written by AT&T and Comcast lawyers).

That's of course why you need a flexible, objective regulator and intelligent neutrality protections that can adapt to what's literally going to be decades of net neutrality cat and mouse (and again, it's worth noting the Thune proposal also hamstrings FCC flexibility). Instead what we often see in the States are regulators that have largely laughed off the threat posed by both usage caps and zero rating efforts, not to mention willfully ignored that wired and wireless usage meters often aren't reliable. ISPs want to bill like utilities, but refuse to be regulated as such.

Many regulators seem to recognize that abuse of usage caps is a core part of the neutrality battle. In fact, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Norway, Chile and now Canada have all now made it clear that carriers can't use their arbitrary usage caps to gain unfair market advantages. As the European Union bickers over its possible rules, Internet grandpappy Tim Berners-Lee penned a guest blog entry this week for EU Digital Single Market Commissioner Andrus Ansip, highlighting that as countries craft net neutrality rules, they have to understand that the conversation doesn't magically stop with prohibiting throttling and blocking:
"Of course, it is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping 'positive discrimination', such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers - able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day. Imagine if a new start-up or service provider had to ask permission from or pay a fee to a competitor before they could attract customers? This sounds a lot like bribery or market abuse - but it is exactly the type of scenario we would see if we depart from net neutrality."
So while neutrality supporters here in the States are generally pleased to see that FCC boss Tom Wheeler is embracing Title II based rules, the discussion doesn't end there. In fact, it's only just beginning. Regulators truly interested in protecting net neutrality need to be every bit as tenacious, clever and intelligent as carrier executives who tirelessly look for creative new ways to abuse their uncompetitive telecom fiefdoms. Given the regulatory quality in most countries, that's a damn tall order, but in the all-too-common absence of truly healthy and competitive broadband markets, there's really no other choice.

Filed Under: data caps, interconnection, net neutrality, peering, zero rating


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  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 6:05am

    A different viewpoint

    the most ham-fisted abuse of usage caps is simply that they exist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Brad (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 6:07am

    They don't quite want to bill like utilities, either; that would imply less use results in a smaller bill. Pay more when your connection for more than the occasional email? Sure thing! But cable companies only want that to go in one direction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Karl Bode (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 6:16am

      Re:

      Yes, I always love how the excuse is that they're simply "experimenting with creative pricing," yet the pricing models I consistently see simply involve taking already pricey flat rate pricing, and tacking caps and overages on top. The only way they'd bother with truly creative pricing that offers real value is if they were competitively motivated to do so...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 6:24am

      Re:

      It kind of makes sense to regulate them as utilities. You would pay a small fee dependent on the size of your pipe and then a very, tiny, little price for the data transferred. The cost of each Mb is negligible so in the end they would get much less, specially from the facebook/e-mail only customers.

      Want to see them flip over in panic? Threaten to regulate them as utilities if they want to keep up with the data caps shenanigans.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2015 @ 7:53am

    I'm someone who isn't that bothered by usage caps. At least I understand the concept of paying more because you're using more.

    HOWEVER, if the point of the cap is to play those sorts of stupid games, then yeah, balloney. It's just another way for the carriers to pick winners and losers on the internet, and that should always been seen as a bad thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 8:47am

      Re:

      "At least I understand the concept of paying more because you're using more."

      There's nothing wrong with that concept. The problem is that usage caps are the idiotic way of achieving that. The more honest way is to just charge on a per-unit basis.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2015 @ 9:44am

        Re: Re:

        Screw that noise.

        I do NOT want to pay for the bandwidth some stupid damn virus, bloatware, or government intrusion might consume!

        It could become a damn sneaky way to 'cause' unnecessary bandwidth cramming and you damn sure know they will find ways to make it look like you have been watching 4k netflix streams on your 56k dial up modem 29 hours a damn day!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Karl Bode (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 10:38am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Well then sir, would you be interested in our premium anti-viral service package that, for a mere $10 more a month, ensures that all of your anti-virus traffic and data due to infection doesn't count against your usage cap? Sound like a good deal?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 2:42pm

        Re: Re:

        The more honest way is to just charge on a per-unit basis.

        If that were coupled with strong competition I would have no problem with it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rich, 25 Feb 2015 @ 9:03am

      Re:

      Using more what? Bandwidth isn't a resource like electricity or gas that gets depleted. Nor is there is any real problem of congestion.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2015 @ 10:30am

        Re: Re:

        Which is something I freely admit I could be better educated on.

        When I purchase a plan, exactly what are the costs connected to the resources I am using? Does it matter if my network is constantly active, and does the amount of data flowing have an impact?

        For example, I spend 5 to 8 hours listening to streaming music. Does the fact that I am using it for that long have an impact? What about the amount of data being streamed (low v. high bitrate tracks)?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bureau13 (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 8:15am

    In other Net Neutrality-related news

    The absolute worst, most mis-informed article on Net Neutrality yet...in the Wall Street Journal, no less:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/l-gordon-crovitz-from-internet-to-obamanet-1424644324

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2015 @ 10:08am

    The great bits depression.

    My opinion on how it should be is that, we the people, OWN the internet itself. No ISP should be able to mess with that!
    We own the internet but we will pay someone to maintain the infrastructure to run it.
    This means that they shouldn't be able to congest the flow, restrict traffic or take extra payment like there is some sort of scarcity of bits in the world.
    The only thing they should be focusing on is provide traffic the with the best speeds and the best uptime possible. They can of course charge a fair price in order to keep the infrastructure up to date and make a little on the side, but no more. The services they provide on the side has nothing to do with delivering traffic, and should compete on the same terms as the rest.
    Today we have an unlimited amount of freeways where 3 out of 4 lanes are blocked in order to create congestion, to make a false scarcity... this is not good for anyone, not even the ISP's.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 25 Feb 2015 @ 2:29pm

    AT&T's Sponsored Data, for example, allows deeper-pocketed companies to pay AT&T an additional toll to have their content exempt from user usage caps, something that automatically puts smaller companies at a disadvantage.


    Deep Pocket Inspection.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    l_p, 27 Feb 2015 @ 2:07am

    wikipedia zero

    Is worth noting that organisations such as Wikimedia/Wikipedia also have Zero deals with wireless providers in some regions.

    Whilst most wouldn't have a problem with this it would technically violate the same neutrality

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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