In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile, Spectrum

Regulators, service and app providers tend to disagree about the danger “zero rating” (allowing consumer use of some apps without usage charges). Many regulators think the practice is anti-competitive. So do some smaller app providers. Many internet service providers believe the tactic has great potential for increasing mobile internet adoption.

Though it is a different issue, “paid prioritization” often is considered a similar sort of problem, or issue, in that it “creates fast lanes” for some internet apps, compared to others, or some companies, compared to others.

Those might well be considered debates about strong or weak forms of network neutrality. The so-called weak form emphasizes that consumers must have access to all lawful apps and sites, and cannot be blocked or deliberately impeded. The so-called strong form goes farther and band any forms of “quality of service,” and some argue the strong principle also should ban paid prioritization and zero rating.

Ironically, paid prioritization already is commonly used in the backbone of the network, often accomplished by stationing edge servers around a delivery network. That is the business Akamai and other content delivery networks are in.

Among the intellectual issues is that prioritization is inevitable. Lawful “network management” necessarily relies on packet prioritization or network access methods of some sort, to literally block or slow down some packets at times of congestion. It is hard to distinguish between lawful network management and blocking or packet prioritization, since those are the tools available for managing networks under congestion.

In principle, concerns about creation of fast lanes and slow lanes, or business advantage gained by large firms able to pay for prioritization, are directly based on notions of scarcity. By definition, in a condition of access bandwidth scarcity, access is a zero-sum game.

Giving some packets faster access necessarily results in some packets getting slower access. That is what a zero-sum game is about.

As a practical matter, we are moving away from such zero-sum access bandwidth conditions. The move to gigabit and multi-gigabit access, on all platforms (mobile and fixed), at least in some markets, eliminates, as a practical matter, most of the zero-sum issues.

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