What lies ahead: Net Neutrality

Tim O'Reilly on the future of smartphones and the realities of net neutrality.

Tim O’Reilly recently offered his thoughts and predictions for a variety of topics we cover regularly on Radar. I’ll be posting highlights from our conversation throughout the week. — Mac

Is mobile creating a new digital divide?

Tim O'ReillyTim O’Reilly: Many people are fretting that limited access to smartphones is creating a new digital divide. I think that’s a misplaced worry because all phones will be smartphones before long. That problem will take care of itself.

If we assume that all phones are smartphones, what happens at that point? First off, we’ll have major capacity problems because a lot more data will go over the airwaves. That’s why some of the FCC’s efforts to free up spectrum are so critical. We can’t keep using spectrum inefficiently and hope to have enough.

There will be spectrum congestion and various problems related to that in the near term, but eventually it will get sorted out. The telecoms will need to make investments, and application developers will have to get smarter about how their apps use data. Apps that are bad network citizens are going to stand out.

What will happen with mobile and net neutrality?

Tim O’Reilly: I used to be in the religious net-neutrality camp, but the realities of capacity mean quality-of-service prioritization has to happen. To be clear, I’m still strongly against discrimination that targets a particular company or application.

I see the idea of “absolute” net neutrality going away at some point. Eric Schmidt made an important point at Web 2.0 Summit: There are two concepts of net neutrality. One is you can’t discriminate against any particular company or any particular application. But on the other hand you can discriminate against classes of applications. You could prioritize video lower than voice, or a bulk download of data lower than something that requires real-time communication. Prioritization will be contentious, but capacity limitations will make it clear why it’s necessary.

Note: Video of Eric Schmidt at Web 2.0 Summit is posted below:

Next in this series: What lies ahead in DIY and Make


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