T-Mobile US Zero Rates Speed Tests

T-Mobile US does not count bits consumed as part of speed tests against a user data usage allowance. Of course, some network neutrality supporters will--as they have with other pro-consumer issues, stretch the concept to the point of intellectual incoherence and silliness.

Worst of all, the intellectual incoherence leads to outcomes that are not consumer friendly, not conducive to innovation, and not enabling differentiation and creativity.

“Network neutrality” has been stretched unnaturally to argue against zero-rating applications usage, something Facebook and other app providers think has merit as a way of providing value to users of mobile Internet access in undeveloped regions. The charge is that doing so does not “treat all bits the same.”

Those on the other side of the net neutrality debate have argued against the concept precisely because it does prevent innovation, creativity and new ways of providing end user value.

In large part, such anti-consumer outcomes result because the language and concepts used to support network neutrality are, as a judge might rule in the case of a statute that is fuzzy in its language or conception, “overly broad.”

In trying to sweep many different types of problems into a bumper sticker slogan (“treat all bits the same”), we wind up in the classic “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” situation.

There are a couple key errors made by supporters of net neutrality that lead to anti-consumer, anti-competitive outcomes, even when net neutrality is supported precisely because it is supposed to be pro-competitive.

Supporters conflate two different principles--that no lawful app can be blocked by an Internet service provider, and that no lawful app can have quality of service measures applied to it.

Lawful apps should not be blocked by a government or an ISP, of course. But even there, the rule is not always clear cut. Should a non-profit group or business be able to block lawful apps? Should a parent? Should a school be able to block even some lawful apps? How about phishing emails, text or social emails?

You get the point: there are some areas where exceptions even to the “no blocking” rule might be helpful, desirable and wanted by consumers and Internet end users.

But “content blocking” can be dealt with--entirely--without invoking a different principle at the heart of network neutrality.

Net neutrality supporters argue against the lawfulness of content delivery networks. CDNs routinely are used by major app providers--paying for services or spending money to create their own CDN features--to speed up the performance and quality of their apps.

Does that give an advantage to firms that can afford to buy CDN service or build their own CDN networks? Of course. Should that be lawful? Net neutrality supporters say such quality of service mechanisms should, in fact, be unlawful.

Unfortunately, the bumper sticker slogan used to argue in favor of net neutrality contains the mental straightjacket that makes the concept increasingly--and obviously--unworkable, anti-competitive anti-consumer.

By simplistically arguing that “all bits should be treated the same,” net neutrality step over from a prescriptive remedy (enforcing a remedy to an existing problem) to a proscriptive (to make illegal something that might or could happen)

And therein lies the problem.

By prohibiting quality of service mechanisms, net neutrality supporters also prevent further development of innovative, consumer-friendly and user-desired features.

Zero-rating of some apps clearly increases use of popular apps in markets where the cost of Internet access is high. But “treating all bits the same” prevents zero rating, and increases the cost of using such apps for consumers who cannot afford to pay very much for access.

Exempting “speed test” data consumption, or even zero-rating delivery of content by Kindle users, provides clear end user value in the same way. People can use apps without incurring extra charges.

Amazon isn’t the only content company to bundle content with delivery. TV and radio broadcasters do the same. So do cable TV, satellite TV and telco TV providers. End users have “no incremental charge” access to content, or pay for a content service, that does not impose additional bandwidth charges.

The old adage that “nothing is free” applies here as well, in ways that promote use of the Internet, use of apps and access to content. Some entity decides it has a vested interest in subsidizing use of network bandwidth to encourage use of its product.

Consumers derive value as a result, and suppliers can innovate.

But “no blocking of lawful apps” is a principle that does not require a prohibition on innovation.

Users can enjoy “best effort access” to the Internet--the way consumers now use the Internet--without proscribing all other innovations that add value for consumers, app providers or access providers.

Quality of service can provide clear end user value when networks get congested. Some apps, especially video and voice, are highly susceptible to packet delay. When networks get congested, customers and end users might well prefer to apply QoS mechanisms to those apps.

Worse, the “treat every bit the same” actually prevents other forms of innovation, including zero rating of some apps, that provide clear end user and customer value.

That’s the problem with bumper sticker solutions to too many other problems that could be remedied by other means.

Protecting the Internet requires much more than simplistic slogans.
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