Network neutrality

In June 2011 the Netherlands became the first European country and only the second one world-wide (after Chile) to enshrine net neutrality into Dutch law. It essentially outlaws the blocking of Internet services (eg Skype) on mobile devices as was being done by several mobile operators in Holland.

I am no expert on the subject, but it seems to me that ISPs (especially mobile ones) are increasingly trying to get around network neutrality and that the real reason is not technical in nature or to be fairer to consumers. Far from it – rather the complete opposite. They have no idea how to price their services without scaring off consumers. An argument put forward by the ISPs against network neutrality is that it is unfair on most consumers, because the big movie downloaders and frequent Skype users are blocking the network for the rest. They therefore want to throttle heavy users based on the application they are using rather than the amount of data being downloaded. To any outside observer this is clearly illogical, first and foremost because you end up hitting all users not just those downloading the most.

If you play, you pay.

If the bandwidth used by some consumers is too high then charge them more and don’t come up with convoluted schemes to make everyone’s Internet experience worse.

We’re all used to paying for electricity by the kWh and for petrol by the litre (or gallon). Why should this be any different for Internet downloads? Sure, we’ve become used to bundled minutes with our land line and mobile contracts. Voice calls, however, have become so cheap thanks to technology and competition that there’s no money in them. Better therefore, for the ISPs, to bundle more minutes than anyone will ever use into an expensive package. This is also better for many consumers as they have a fixed price and don’t need to worry about expensive bills at the end of the month. Unfortunately we are still a few years away from Internet bandwidth becoming that cheap.

In the meantime, ISPs are trying to hide from the majority of their clients that they are actually subsidising the internet habits of the power user. By charging everyone the same £20/month, no matter how much they use the Internet, ISPs actually make a huge profit on the casual user and take a small hit on the power users. At least they used to. With the advent the YouTube, Skype conferencing, music services such as Spotify and especially BBC iPlayer the number of power users has increased significantly and the cross-subsidy is no longer profitable. So rather than impose download limits on the basic package and charge an appropriate fee for the power user package, they simply want to charge you for using Skype. This is especially handy for them as there are other compelling motives for ISPs to do this. For example the use of Skype on mobile devices can get around the prohibitively expensive rates mobile providers are currently charging for things such as international calls or roaming. Or the ISPs want to get you to download movies from their own overpriced and under-stocked online movie store.

Net neutrality needs to be protected

Thus, in order to ensure fair play and competition on the Internet as well as the quality of Internet services, net neutrality needs to be enshrined in law across the ЕU. I am grateful to Holland for taking the first step in this direction. I hope the EU follows suit shortly.

 

 

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