Net neutrality versus the coming mobile meltdown

“Net neutrality” is a concept often taken for granted. It is assumed to be a sacred right – isn’t in the Constitution somewhere? But net neutrality may be rapidly becoming untenable in our mobile world as streaming video to handheld devices puts huge new strains on available wireless capacity.

Net neutrality refers to the principle that an internet provider should always allow its users to connect with the users of other internet providers, and should not block the applications and content of other providers. It also has become an article of internet faith that net neutrality means unlimited usage (as opposed to surcharges based on consumption of wireless capacity).

But Holman Jenkins argues in today’s Wall Street Journal that unfettered usage is leading to a “mobile meltdown in the making.”

Consider: A single You Tube viewing consumes nearly 100 times as much cellular bandwidth as a voice call. In Asia, some 200 million people already watch video on their smart-phones…AdMob reports that mobile Web page requests grew 9% from July to August–a 180% annual growth rate. And Motorola recently went public with worries that a handful of mobile Sling-box users could wipe out cell service in a whole neighborhood.

… the biggest political scrum in the near future won’t be over classic net neutrality at all–it will be a battle over usage-based pricing, which is one of the few demands to keep excessive demand in check.

Jenkins calls on the Obama Administration to take steps to free up more wireless spectrum, allow mobile phone operators to merge and to “relax about net neutrality.”

But don’t expect champions of net neutrality and free, unfettered usage to go quietly in the night.

– Jon Harmon

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