Device neutrality

Everyone is talking about Net Neutrality (ok, maybe not everyone). It’s a very important issue and if you aren’t familiar with it maybe you should follow the link. But in this post I want to talk about a related issue that does not seem to be getting the attention it should: Device neutrality. Read more if you care to…

You see, according to TCP/IP – the set of protocols that how the Internet works – every computer connected to the network is equal. All have an IP address, all can run whatever servers they want to run, and all computers can connect to each other. There is no discrimination: in the eyes of the Internet, a massive server at Google and your little smartphone are equals as long as they are both online. Sure, your phone is way more limited by its memory, processing power, and bandwidth; and its address and availability vary constantly making it unsuitable as a server… but in the eyes of the Internet they are the same.

Lately, I’ve seen a trend that seems to have gone mostly unreported: Both ISPs and content providers are discriminating how much they charge based on what kind of device the client is… for exactly the same product. It’s not a matter of whether the device is capable or not of using the service, or because the quality of the service changes based on the device. It’s an arbitrary way to get more money for exactly the same thing.

Example 1:

AT&T, like other cell phone companies, has different prices for different data plans for your smartphone. $15/month for 500 MB, $25/month for 2 GB. This applies only to data you use on your cellphone. If you want to use your cellphone as a modem (tethering) or as a WiFi base station so that the content is ultimately consumed on another device, like a laptop, then you have to pay an extra $20 for the privilege. Bytes are bytes. It doesn’t cost AT&T more money to transmit 100 KB through your phone to display a website on your laptop than it does to display the same website on the phone’s screen.

This is like being at a place that sells food by weight (i.e. Whole Foods) that charges more money per pound of food to fat customers on the rationale that they are more likely to eat more. I’m sure that wouldn’t go down too well.

Example 2:

Hulu. If you want to watch a TV show on your laptop, you need to watch some commercials but otherwise it’s free. But if you want to watch the same show on your iPad or on your Playstation 3, then you must pay $8 for Hulu plus. Why do they discriminate against them?

This is like a gas station that charges $3/gallon for gas if you are driving any car but a hatchback or a two-seater. If you are driving either one of those then you must pay $6/gallon even though it has about the same mileage as other cars. I’m sure that wouldn’t go down too well.

Both of the examples above can be windows into the future of the Internet unless something is done about it. I am doing something by raising awareness. What are you going to do?

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