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At MWC, carriers wage a sorry war on the free and open internet

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Barcelona, Spain: a city so important to mobile, the GSM Association has crowned it "Mobile World Capital," home of the annual Mobile World Congress trade show, through 2018. Each February, it's a place where the heavies of the wireless industry come from every corner of the globe to wheel, deal, and steer strategic initiatives that will affect mobile subscribers for years to come. With global wireless penetration somewhere in the vicinity of 85 percent, that translates to an enormous amount of power being wielded in this bustling Catalonian metropolis over the course of a mere four-day conference.

Of course, many of those conversations and handshakes take place behind closed doors — far removed from the media and the public at large — but there are still countless events, sessions, and interviews at the show that offer a glimpse into the inner workings of the global wireless machine. One such session took place last Tuesday, with executives of India's Airtel, Russia's Vimpelcom, and Spain's Telefonica discussing data services in emerging markets. As CNET reports, the discussion turned to the extraordinary growth in data-hungry services.

"...YouTube is consuming a massive amount of resources on our network. Somebody's got to pay for that," said Airtel's Sunil Bharti Mittal, suggesting that the service pay an "interconnect charge" for the right to deliver its content to operators' subscribers.

The desire to fell the tenets of net neutrality is very real, and it's very global

Sound familiar? Language like this drives at the very heart of the global net neutrality debate — the notion that data should flow freely and without restriction by ISPs, regardless of its type or content. To a normal human, it seems like a painfully obvious notion because data doesn't discriminate. To the wires and routers that underpin the internet, one byte is functionally equivalent to the next — the only thing that matters is the total volume of data trying to travel over those pipes at one time. The for-profit organizations that deliver the internet to our devices, of course, view net neutrality as a roadblock to additional revenue because there's clearly money to be made in gatekeeping the services (like YouTube) that their subscribers care about most. And it'll only get dicier as carriers seek to maintain control of voice and video calling services — over free alternatives like Skype — in the 4G ecosystem.

In the US and a handful of other industrialized nations, regulatory bodies have generally taken a stand in favor of net neutrality. The FCC, however, has refused to apply those same principles to wireless networks on vague grounds that have never been explained to the satisfaction of any net neutrality proponent (and bear in mind that a "net neutrality proponent" is virtually anyone who isn't operating a for-profit network). How that loophole ultimately materializes on users' monthly bills remains to be seen, but carriers like Verizon and AT&T argue tirelessly in Washington that their networks are under unprecedented stress and that they're on the verge of spectrum exhaustion — language which, though unaudited and unconfirmed, is clearly geared at getting permission to raise prices, shut out competitors from gaining access to additional spectrum, and place revenue-generating gates in front of data-consuming services that subscribers want (or some combination thereof).

Mittal's comments at Mobile World Congress tell us that this desire to fell the tenets of net neutrality is very real, and it's very global. His company has close to 180 million subscribers — not much less than Verizon and AT&T combined. If Airtel were to shut off access to YouTube and demand payment, it'd be a devastating blow, particularly in a country where the mobile phone is frequently the primary (or only) form of internet access.

And Mittal isn't the only one. Vimpelcom's Jo Lunder echoed the sentiment: "[Users] think downloading stuff is free, sending stuff doesn't steal any resources in our network." No, Jo, I don't think downloading stuff is free — and I've got a $140 monthly bill to prove it.

And herein lies the upsetting disconnect, the cognitive dissonance that we should be most concerned about. As subscribers, we're already paying for data — paying dearly. I've already written of the death of unlimited data, and I think that spectrum exhaustion is a concept that even the most basic (dare I say luddite) users can grasp: spectrum is a scarce resource, and there's only so much to go around. Carriers are already happily capping us and charging us by the byte, and it's that pay-for-what-you-use principle that will get us over this problem of supply versus demand. It's a tenet of capitalism that's as old as capitalism itself.

I don't think downloading stuff is free — and I've got a $140 monthly bill to prove it

Mittal's shot across YouTube's bow isn't an authentic plea for help paying for an overstressed network — it's a feeler to see how content providers and users will react to the notion of being squeezed for yet another dime. In reality, Airtel already bills by the kilobyte and has caps in place for many of its plans; that's the only infrastructure it needs to manage booming demand for data-intensive services. And though we might bemoan higher bills, I'll take that any day over an arbitrarily walled-off internet. You should, too. At the very least, the concept of paying for the amount of data I consume is one that I can understand.

And don't be fooled, these operators aren't drowning. Airtel profited 89.9 billion rupees ($1.8 billion) and Vimpelcom made $1.7 billion in 2010, the last full year for which both companies have reported.

So, be outraged. Make no mistake, neither YouTube nor any other service is going to establish hundreds of payment arrangements with carriers around the world, simply because they wish to establish a "bonus" revenue stream to fund capital investment. The next revolution of the connected world is entirely mobile, and if Mittal and his contemporaries get their way, this is the end of the internet as we know it.

The Verge
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