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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  • Derek Balling

    “I think that’s a misplaced worry because all phones will be smartphones before long.”

    Holy cow I hope not.

    I love my EVO to death, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day, there’s been a lot of times when I want my PHONE to just be, y’know, a PHONE.

    Sure I can do lots of cool and interesting things with my smartphone, but that all comes to the detriment (albeit slight in some cases) of its actual use as a phone.

    I’ve never had a phone as great as my old RAZR. Flip-phone so I never hip-dialed someone. Large, easy to read display (for the purposes of dialing, at least, I wouldn’t want to play a game on it, but that wasn’t its purpose). Intuitive, large, keypad that I wasn’t fumbling around with, etc., great form-factor that actually shaped around a person’s head instead of being this rectangular slap… Perfection in a phone as far as I’m concerned.

    Sure, sometimes we make some trade-offs in our phone functionality to get other features we find attractive, but sometimes – and for a lot of people – the actual use as a PHONE is far more important than the ability to play Angry Birds.

  • I agree that absolute net-neutrality cannot last, but I think it’s dangerous to talk about discrimination against classes of applications. It won’t be long before someone starts talking about the “class” of web sites that serve “undesirable” content. The right perspective is prioritization or pricing on quality of service. Carriers should be required to be neutral over all traffic that wants to deliver a certain quantity of bits with certain latency and loss rates. The red flag should go up over any prioritization based on what those bits mean or who is sending them.

    Even so there are two very different forms of discrimination. One is to discriminate by setting prices high, but selling to anyone willing to pay, another is to discriminate by not selling to certain people willing to pay. The former is understandable, the latter unconscionable. As long as we stick to the former, I think things will work out.

  • One thing that never ceases to amazes me is the jumping from what I wish as a consumer and what we force on providers thru the force of law.
    Instead of a binary debate (for or against), we need to keep in mind the option of being for net neutrality and against net neutrality regulations.