MetroPCS’s discounted 4G LTE mobile broadband plans, announced yesterday, weren’t just the beginning of a possible price war. The announcement represented a long-talked about tactic of wireless ISPs charging for content at different rates and potentially favoring their own services while charging more for access to rivals. The new LTE plans raise the specter of consumers paying more for certain kinds of content and the potential for a fractured Internet experience, where users may not be free to jump easily from one site to another.
The company appears poised to test the latest net neutrality rules enacted by the FCC, which created fewer protections for discrimination of mobile content. Free Press, a media advocacy group, has now called upon the FCC to investigate MetroPCS’s new pricing tiers. MetroPCS spokesperson Drew Crowell said the carrier is not prepared to discuss the Free Press statement or net neutrality implications of its latest service plans.
The MetroPCS’ LTE plans include three tiers. The $40 a month tier includes unlimited talk, text, 4G Web browsing with unlimited YouTube access. A $50 tier adds international and premium text messaging, turn-by-turn navigation, mobile instant messaging, corporate e-mail and 1 GB of additional data access (streaming services, VoIP and other services) with premium audio and video available through MetroSTUDIO when connected through Wi-Fi. For $60 a month, users also get unlimited data access and MetroSTUDIO premium content such as 18 video-on-demand channels and audio downloads.
Where this gets tricky is that users are allowed to have unlimited YouTube (s goog) access and unlimited web browsing under the $40 tier. But to get broad unlimited Internet access for things like VoIP
Skype, streaming video and audio services, data uploads and gaming services, users will have to move up to the $50 or $60 tier, MetroPCS’s Crowell said. Also, the $50 tier provides users access to MetroPCS’s MetroSTUDIO over Wi-Fi and unlimited access over broadband in the $60 tier. What this all means is that users can browse Facebook all day long and could click on any YouTube links to see the video. But if they click on a link to another video service, users can visit the site but won’t be able to view the video. Facebook videos are also likely blocked as are streaming music services such as Pandora. Crowell said YouTube doesn’t have a special relationship with MetroPCS. It was just one of the most popular multimedia sites among MetroPCS consumers so the carrier decided to allow unlimited access to it.
“We saw that YouTube is one of the main ways that our customers get multimedia content and we wanted to make sure that content was available to them,” Crowell said. “The $50 and $60 plans are about choice and providing options to meet the needs of our consumers.”
We’ve been talking about the desire of operators to charge by time and app. European carriers have started doing this but American operators have not moved into this area because of net neutrality concerns. The latest FCC net neutrality rules don’t prohibit this kind of behavior and are more concerned with outright blocking of content. In fact, as Stacey wrote about, it opens the way for more usage-based pricing. But the rules also allow the FCC to investigate anti-consumer behavior, which is what Free Press appears to be playing off of.
These new plans, if they’re allowed to stand, show us what the future of mobile broadband will look like if operators have their way. It could be a frustrating experience for users, recreating a walled garden. It’s not surprising that MetroPCS is trying to push this agenda. Most operators would stand to gain a lot if they can get this type of plan to fly. Eventually, I expect MetroPCS won’t be the only operator looking to lay down new toll layers atop the mobile Internet.
Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d):
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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user ell brown