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Verizon Plans a Fast Lane for Some Apps

Video calling or movie apps could receive extra bandwidth—for a price, of course.
November 10, 2011

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.

Breaking up: Verizon’s new technology might allow customers to pay for high bandwidth in advance: if they wanted to avoid the picture breaking up while streaming a movie, for example.

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.

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.”

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