Do Neutral Wireless Networks Require an End to the Flat-rate Plan?

The network neutrality debate — whether or not Internet Service Providers can discriminate against packets (GigaOM Pro sub req’d) or application providers — pits what the blogosphere often sees as the forces of good (Google, The Free Press) against the forces of evil (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast), while generally ignoring the technical realities or even clearly understanding the limits of said networks. So I was excited to see presented to the FCC this week a paper written by Scott Jordan, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Irvine, on whether or not one can or should apply net neutrality to wireless networks.

The paper concludes that the differences between wireline and wireless networks do change the way network management is implemented, and suggests that by creating the equivalent of an open interface for the transport layers (layers 1-3 in the OSI model) of a wireless network would be enough to prevent ISPs from stifling competition on wireless networks. From an abstract of the paper:

We address whether differences between wired and wireless network technology merit different treatment with respect to net neutrality. We are concerned with whether the challenges of wireless signals and mobility merit different traffic management techniques, and how these techniques may affect net neutrality. Although wireless networks require stronger traffic management, we find these differences are only at and below the network layer, and hence wireless broadband access providers can effectively control congestion without restricting a user’s right to run the applications of their choice.

However, for Jordan the open interface would be tied to pricing, notably the amount a user is willing to pay for certain prioritization or types of traffic at the lower levels. He explains in the paper itself:

In contrast, many current plans are not application-agnostic and are hence not consistent with an open interface. Some plans for smartphones include unlimited amounts of data, but restrict use to certain devices (e.g. prohibit tethering to a laptop) and to certain applications (e.g. permit web browsing and email, but prohibit ?le sharing, streaming, and VoIP). The goals of traffic management can be more efficiently obtained through an application-agnostic interface that allows users to choose their own applications and to match these applications to QoS options based on price.

Not only does this mean the flat-rate mobile broadband plan is dead, but the onus is on the consumer to understand what she wants to do with her device and subscribe to the correct pricing plan. Already carriers are weighing how they will change mobile broadband pricing (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d) to more accurately reflect usage, so by providing a way to offer usage-based pricing in a way that could fit with network neutrality rules, this paper could help carriers implement such plans. It explains from a technical perspective why wireless networks should also abide by network neutrality regulations and how to do so in a manner that respects the constraints unique to wireless networks. So there’s something in here for both consumers and carriers to potentially dislike.

Image courtesy of Flickr user pfly

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