July 21, 2006

Today's cell phone system argues for retaining network neutrality

For now, Internet service providers are prohibited from discriminating against connections to particular sites on the Internet: they are required to treat traffic to Google exactly the same as traffic to Yahoo! or MSN. This principle of equality is called "network neutrality." However, large telecommunication companies are lobbying congress to scrap the network neutrality rules that have been in place since the birth of the Internet. We don't have to look far to see why this is a bad idea.

Net neutrality proponents foretell a grim future for the Internet if net neutrality is scrapped: one where technology stagnates because of high entry barriers and one where a small oligarchy controls what consumers can and cannot experience. Those who want to eliminate neutrality dismiss this as alarmist, and claim that net neutrality would remove the incentive for broadband providers to build the next generation of Internet infrastructure, which all agree is sorely needed in the US.

With such wildly divergent ideas about the effects of a simple policy, wouldn't it be nice if history provided some guidance from which to evaluate these claims?

It turns out that we have a privately owned and controlled network all around us, one that closely mirrors the technical functionality of the Internet, but where there has never been a requirement for net neutrality: the US cellular phone network.

Almost all cell phones sold in the developed world have the ability to send and receive SMS (short message service) text messages. SMS is gaining popularity in the US, but only as a way to send quick messages to friends. So why aren't there a wealth of amazing and interactive services available for mobile devices? Why is there no MySpace, Craigslist, Amazon, Flikr, or eBay accessible through this network? Why are cell phone payment systems and email systems nearly nonexistent? Why haven't charities raised money or awareness of their causes through this system?

It's simple. Because the cell phone carriers control what services are allowed to use their networks. There is no net neutrality on the cell phone network.

Imagine you want to create a user-moderated news service like digg.com that operates on SMS. On the neutral Internet, you rent a Web server ($7-$100 per month to start), register your name, and start programming. Total time required: less then two hours in most cases. But getting a service on the non-neutral US cell phone network would be a little different:

The first step would be to contact a company known as an aggregator. This company manages your relationships with the cell phone carriers -- and that's carriers, plural, because making an agreement with just one carrier ensures that your service will fail because it cannot effectively spread via word of mouth. The first requirement from an aggregator is a service charge, which starts at $1,000 per month. Then, you must buy a shortcode (which kind of serves as your Web site name) for an additional $500-$1,000 per month. But you're not done.

The next step is satisfying the requirements of the cell phone companies. Many of these steps, such as requiring affirmative opt-in before a subscription can start, are not burdensome, and serve to protect the carriers' customers. Others, however, border on ludicrous. Requirements vary by carrier, but some prohibit operators from offering games or sweepstakes, or require that subscription periods can only be monthly: not daily, weekly, or yearly. Others require that content, such as ringtones, be locked so users can't forward them from their phones to their friends' phones.

Other requirements are outright offensive: as of this writing, Cingular, Sprint/Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon all prohibit charities from raising money though their Premium SMS services. Too bad for the United Way, Greenpeace, and the Red Cross.

Some carriers also have "decency" restrictions that are so silly and restrictive that they make the production code that governed movies between 1934 and 1967 seem quaint. Verizon is the worst offender in this case: It prohibits dating services, images that are suggestive (the same images would be acceptable if aired on prime-time network TV), and any use of "crude" words, including such shockers as "fornicate" and "genital."

After you make your application compliant to the carriers' requirements, you wait weeks or months for the carriers to approve it, and jump through more hoops if they reject your application, which they can do for any or no reason.

In practical terms, you'd never get approval for your brand new peer-mediated news service. Even if you were able to set up filters to block images and bad words, you'd still be sunk: Verizon prohibits "un-moderated chatting, flirting and/or peer-to-peer communication services."

Even if you could slip your service past the censors, you would already have been set back eight weeks and many thousands of dollars -- and this is just the beginning. Next, the carrier will charge you a fee (a few cents, typically) for every message you send to your users, and charge your users to receive your messages -- and charge them to send you messages. Just imagine where craigslist.org would be if it had to pay a few cents every time someone browsed an ad, and you had to pay as well. It's no wonder SMS services are overpriced and haven't grown beyond a niche market for ringtones and horoscopes.

This sad state of affairs is what lies in wait if we let commercial interests take control of the Internet. Expect the same type of behavior from AT&T, Comcast, and the rest of the oligarchs. It doesn't take much imagination to imagine Verizon treating their Internet property just like their cell phone network -- short-sightedly milking it for all it's worth, at great expense to the public, and to the future.

James Glass (not his real name) is the owner of a company currently trying to navigate the minefield of running a third-party service on the cell phone networks. He is writing the article pseudonymously because the cell phone companies have the power and freedom to crush his company by blocking it from their networks.

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