AT&T has been busy defending its decision to ban FaceTime video chat from its 3G and 4G networks, unless punters shell out additional cash, to the sound of an incensed blogosphere screaming "net neutrality".
In a blog wittering AT&T’s "Senior Vice President-Federal Regulatory and Chief Privacy Officer" Bob Quinn defends the decision to limit cellular FaceTime to users who cough up to the telco's new "Mobile Share" tariff. Quinn's argument is that network neutrality only applies to competitors, and Apple isn't a competitor, not to mention that FaceTime comes preinstalled, not downloaded, the combination of which negates the operator's responsibility to treat all network traffic equally. It's an argument which won't be well received.
The principle of Net neutrality, which broadly speaking insists everyone should get equal access to the internet, is now enshrined in US regulations. However, wireless providers get exemptions on the understanding that they need to prioritise packets making up voice calls and other time-critical services on the condition they don't block competing services.
AT&T will require iPhone owners to upgrade their tariff to use Apple's FaceTime over its cellular network, but as the telco has no video-calling service of its own it isn't interfering with a "competitor", and customers are still free to download and install other video-calling applications that will work over the cellular network.
FaceTime is not a network-friendly application, and its users do consume more than their fair share of bandwidth, but AT&T customers are already paying for that bandwidth and argue that the net neutrality regulation was supposed to stop exactly this kind of behaviour.
Network neutrality is, of course, a myth. YouTube works better than any other video service because Google can afford to cache content at the edge of every network. Other services vary - Zen internet, for example, provides marvellous connections to NetFlix, but streaming a movie from LoveFilm is something of a lottery.
Despite the Powerpoint diagrams, the architecture of the internet is not a cloud, and most packets have a tortuous journey at the best of times. UK law permits a network operator to prioritise content from business partners as long as it tells everyone. US regulation is less flexible, but that's not stopped AT&T claiming that its honesty is a factor in its right to block FaceTime.
Mobile network operators are desperate to apply more flexible billing, just as customers increasingly want flat-rate services. Billing by applications used, rather than the straight per-bit rate we now have, would give them flexibility to create impenetrable data tariffs, saving money for the most diligent customers prepared to analyse their own usage, while costing the rest of us more - which is rather the point.
Mobile operators still make most of their money from voice calls, while most of their traffic is data, so something has to give. Users might just have to get used to paying a higher rate, but this won't be the last attempt by an operator to obfuscate that process as much as possible. ®