Wireless provider Verizon has developed technology that would allow mobile apps to request extra bandwidth for short periods—to fix a choppy video call if a local cell tower is experiencing high demand, for example, or to ensure that a video plays smoothly.
The feature is intended to allow bandwidth-hungry apps to survive even as soaring wireless Internet traffic from smart phones and tablets strains the networks serving them. However, users or the companies that make data-hogging apps will have to pay for such turbo boosts, and the feature could face opposition from advocates of “net neutrality,” the philosophy that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
Verizon demonstrated the new feature—which is still in development—at the company’s Application Innovation Center in San Francisco last week. High-quality video streaming over a 4G cellular link became pixilated as the available bandwidth was throttled, to simulate what can happen when a lot of users request data in the same area. That was reversed when the application receiving the video used a new API to request a bandwidth boost.
“Maybe, for the first time in the world, programs can make the network coincide with their business and technology goals,” says Hugh Fletcher, who leads Verizon’s efforts to allow outside software to access data and features of the company’s cellular network that are traditionally meant for internal use only.
“One of the things someone might do is guaranteed quality of service,” says Fletcher. “You can anticipate a Skype call that gets bad, and you can have a turbo button to boost the bandwidth and fix that.” He cited Skype only as an example; no app developers have yet built the new feature into their apps.
Verizon plans to charge for the service. Fletcher says a consumer might pay directly for extra bandwidth for a short time: for example, to guarantee that a movie will stream at high quality. Alternatively, the cost of the extra bandwidth might be included in the price of a subscription to a movie streaming service, or added to the cost of a video call, for example.
Fletcher stressed that no business model or even preferred use cases have yet been settled upon for the bandwidth-boosting feature. However, he predicts that—as happened after the launch of Apple’s mobile app store—mobile developers will create uses for the new feature that could never be imagined by those offering it. “Think of Verizon’s network as a platform like Facebook or Twitter that developers can tap into the capabilities of,” he says.