Solving the wireless Net neutrality conflict

Yes, the carriers are robber barons, but unlimited data usage is equally unrealistic. Here's a plan to get better wireless data service for all

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The other problem is extreme usage, such as the bandwidth consumed to watch an HD video on a broadband-equipped laptop or iPad. In this case, a handful of users can block data access by everyone else, particularly because streaming services use lots of bandwidth constantly, not in periodic bursts as is the case for email, Web access, and the like. With streaming services, there aren't many gaps in traffic for others to jump into for their data access.

Step 1: Move to tiered pricing
The obvious, simple answer to these problems seems to be to switch from unlimited data pricing to tiered pricing, as has long been the case for voice usage and for basic utilities such as water, electricity, and gas. If coupled with a subsidized price for the poor (who often have only limited access to broadband-connected PCs and, thus, use smartphones more than rich people), such pricing would charge heavy users more, discouraging the kind of senseless consumption that unlimited access encourages of a limited resource.

With tiered pricing, heavy users would fund the infrastructure whose demand they are largely creating. It would also discourage some usage as people become more cautious about when they go online with their mobile devices to, say, watching dancing-cat video clips, freeing up bandwidth for everyone else.

Step 2: Introduce congestion policies
Tiered pricing should be the first step, but it won't solve the congestion issue alone. Hoover notes that outside the United States, tiered pricing has tempered some access but has not addressed the simultaneous use problem.

What can help are policies on the carrier side to limit access to streaming applications -- video, radio, some gaming, and some data feeds -- in congestion zones. Thus, email, Web, and other bursty traffic would be favored over those that latch onto bandwdith and don't let go.

I know that for some people this smacks of violating the principles of Net neutrality, and the carriers could certainly abuse such policies, so strong regulation is needed to restrict their use. I think it's fine to pop up a message to a user trying to watch video saying that the network is too congested to display video reliably, so try later or elsewhere. But it's not fine to use such policies to block or throttle certain types of video or certain video providers -- it has to be all or none.

Those who really need to access high-bandwidth services at peak times or locations could pay for the privilege, getting an assured connection even in congestion zones. Hoover suspects that if carriers offered such add-ons, few people would actually get them. However, it would help change their behavior by making the link between poor service in congested areas and the activities that worsen the congestion.

Step 3: Bundle delivery cost with services and applications
When you subscribe to a service such as Netflix or to a magazine such as CIO, part of the cost includes the delivery via postal mail. Part of your fee also covers the streaming costs paid for by a service such as Netflix or Amazon.com's Kindle to its network provider and to companies such as Akamai that manage the broadband distribution.

Apps and services need to include the delivery costs of what they provide, not push that cost to the carriers or to all users (in the form of higher data charges on wireless and wired broadband plans). This ties in with the concept of paying for what you use, rather than spreading the cost to everyone.

It's already common for providers to pay for the transport costs of the content and services they deliver over broadband, and wireless should work the same way. But again, it has to be neutral -- carriers must not be allowed to favor certain partners, services, or content. If the government wants to subsidize the news media or nonprofit data distribution, as it long has for printed materials with special postal rates, that's a political decision that government should make, not carriers.

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