Eric Setton, CEO and founder of a mobile video calling app called Tango, says many carriers are becoming more open about allowing apps to connect with the guts of their networks. “We like this stuff because we want to do things like query the network to learn about available bandwidth and congestion instead of having to guess,” he says. That could mean fewer dropped video streams, because an app could get forewarning that a connection may become sluggish.
Setton hasn’t tried Verizon’s “turbo” feature, and he says it may take a while for people to get used to the idea. “Except in the movie business, with HD being more expensive, I’ve not seen people succeed in charging for extra quality,” he says.
Verizon and other companies have been criticized by activists, technologists, and some lawmakers who support net neutrality. A controversial agreement on just what net neutrality means for wireless data was published by Verizon and Google last year. Some experts claim it tramples on the basic idea by allowing for some premium services, including Verizon’s new idea for boosting quality for some apps.
Jean Walrand, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who researches networking technology and economics, says he believes enabling consumers to pay for an extra slug of bandwidth is acceptable. “I don’t think net neutrality means you can’t get a better service for a higher price,” says Walrand. “For example, at home you pay more for a faster broadband connection. What is not allowed is discriminating among users paying the same price.”
The technology could help tackle the very real problems of data congestion facing providers like Verizon and their users, says Walrand. His research and that carried out by others suggests that such policies make it possible to extract the maximum value for end users out of the limited supply of bandwidth available, similar to how a bridge toll at rush hour helps ensure that people who really need to cross get to do so without being impeded by people with more flexibility.
Walrand says that the idea could be made more palatable by giving users a quota of turbo “tokens/credits” each month instead of charging cash for bursts of better service, a scenario his research group has studied. However, he cautions against bundling the charges for a wireless toll lane into the pricing of other services, so that they are hidden to a consumer. “That could be questionable in terms of net neutrality, because Verizon could profit from discriminating against other traffic.”