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Akamai’s Plan for a Wireless Data Fast Lane

Clogged wireless networks spur a plan to speed data to smartphones, for a price.
March 29, 2013

No matter how quickly you dispatch data over the Internet, the last link is increasingly a wireless link to a customer’s smartphone or tablet. Those links are slower and sometimes congested. These days, while the average desktop Web page loads in two to three seconds, the average mobile Web page takes about eight seconds—sometimes causing shoppers to abandon transactions.

Now Akamai, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working with several partners toward establishing a kind of “fast lane” on the radio waves that wireless relies on. It would allow companies to pay extra to have their Web page or app data transmitted ahead of others’. Akamai’s move is part of a growing effort to figure out how to deliver information to your phone faster (see “Akamai’s New CEO Aims to Speed Up Mobile Computing”), but it could raise fairness issues, depending on how much the premium service lengthens wait times for people who don’t pay more.

Akamai is already the big player in speeding up the fixed-line Internet, the one that operates across fiber-optic and copper cables in the ground. The company runs 120,000 servers on 1,200 networks in 81 countries, where it hosts Web content for its clients near locations of expected demand. Now the company is teaming with Ericsson, the Swedish firm that makes 40 percent of wireless base stations (the radio antennas on hilltops and sides of buildings that transmit data to your phone), to bring the same concept into the wireless realm.

The new Akamai-Ericsson technology—called Mobile Cloud Accelerator—builds on the way wireless carriers already give voice calls priority over other data. Right now, to avoid choppy conversations, mobile carriers place data associated with voice calls at the front of the queue, ahead of text messages, e-mails, videos, or photos. Under the new protocols, companies can pay to access a tier of premium data service. In trials of Akamai’s technology over the past year on wireless networks in Europe, a typical 200-kilobyte mobile Web page that took between 3.5 seconds and 7 seconds to load would instead load in one to three seconds when placed in the fast lane.  

Lior Netzer, vice president for mobile networks at Akamai, says he expects the new service would have a barely measurable effect on other traffic even when 10 percent of the network’s capacity was set aside for premium content. Akamai thinks that even if delays were noticeable on things like e-mails and photo downloads, the trade-off of reaching a speedy conclusion to an important transaction like buying an airline ticket would be worth it for consumers.

Businesses that might want to pay extra include banks and just about anyone hoping to close a sale. The new service would produce a new revenue stream. Akamai, which plans to run the service from its servers, would split the revenue with equipment makers like Ericsson, who install the technology, and with the wireless carriers who will use it on their networks.

As the amount of data on wireless networks soars, any effort to treat some bits differently from others could raise concerns. In recent years some academics and legal experts have advocated a concept called net neutrality, which in its purest interpretation means no Internet service or government should treat data differently, or charge differently, on the basis of its content.

For instance, in late 2011, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission issued rules forbidding companies that provide Internet or wireless service from blocking access to any website or apps (except illegal ones), even in cases where companies, like Skype, might use them to offer services that compete with a carrier’s business.

However, the net neutrality doctrine is usually not interpreted as preventing people from paying extra for better service. After all, many customers already pay for a faster Internet connection at their home or office.

Still, Akamai’s new wireless effort is different because space on wireless networks is much scarcer than space on fiber-optic networks. The idea could therefore penalize nonsubscribers more heavily, says Wendy Seltzer, a fellow with Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. “Here, if somebody doesn’t take advantage of this prioritization technology, it’s not clear that they aren’t getting slowed down,” says Seltzer. “I’m not sure it’s necessarily bad because of that. But it may not be purely neutral.”

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