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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Operators will have to be open about usage policies - and enforcement

I've written before about the differing policies that mobile operators are employing with regard to their 3G flatrate and other data services. There are widely varying monthly caps - in the UK, Voda's new one is 120MB, in contrast to Orange's measly 30MB and T-Mobile's generous 1GB. Some are permitting VoIP, others prohibit it, some charge more. The whole N95 saga has illustrated just how different certain operators' phones are, even when they're notionally the same model.

Many operators also use forms of traffic shaping, packet inspection and other stuff in the data path, usually hidden to the end user. There's an assumption that this might also throttle download speeds, interfere with specific applications (P2P, VoIP etc). It certainly happens in the fixed-broadband world.

The interesting thing is that by and large, disclosure is poor. Operators will often deny that they're doing anything, or else customer service staff will not have been given adequate information by the technical guys.

I'm predicting that the skulduggery will have to stop.

Operators will need to be upfront about what their usage terms are (in plain English) as comparisons become more readily available. Unless they get exclusives, operators are also likely to need to compete on how their version of customers' chosen handsets perform. I expect to see comparison charts of features / speed / lock-downs between different carriers' versions of phones and the "vanilla" variants. And, lastly, I expect that operators will need to start to divulge more about their traffic-shaping policy. Otherwise they'll find that other people will reverse-engineer it and do it for them.

Based on a few discussions I've had recently, this is also an area where I expect pressure to be put on regulators or business standards bodies by consumer groups.


Richard Tucker said...

I'm surprised that fixed line network operator has not taken legal action with their wireless competitors over misleading claims of "unlimited download". It is plainly deceptive.

Perhaps the first mobile operator to break this deceptive practice will immediately point to their colleagues, take them to court on deceptive conduct, and concurrently advertise to the public that they are the only true "unlimited provider". If anything should result in some good publicity.

Jag said...

I left a comment on "Martin's Mobile Technology page" regarding his measured throughput on Vodaphone Italy, challenging his assumption re traffic shaping taking place.

I agree with most of your points made re transparency etc, but I do feel it's just as important to not just assume that bumbling or "evil operator" practises are at play when we see something we don't like.

Martin said...

Jag makes a nice case but his delay assumptions are wrong. With the right delay values his math clearly shows that the transfer speed does not hit a limit due to the delay. Also the same download via the TIM HSDPA network shows what's really possible. For details hit the link again in the post above to get to my article.

Having said that, I continue to uphold my suspicion that Vodafone Italy is applying traffic shaping.

Other topic: I agree with you that it can't go on forever that operators call clearly limited offers "unlimited". It's a misuse of the word and misleading. I can understand their desire to use the word because 99% of people have no idea what the difference is between 30MB and 1GB. And why should they? However, using the word "unlimited" is the easy way out of the dilemma.

A smart way out of the dilemma is One's solution in Austria. If users hit the cap, the speed is reduced so a user can notice that they have hit the limit. They can then live with the slower speed till the end of the month or spend some more money to lift the cap. For details see: http://tinyurl.com/2tjsy3


Jag said...

Hi Martin, I had some trouble leaving a response to your clarification re delay on the your blog pages, so I leave them here if Dean doesn't mind! :-)

Thanks for your response Martin! And thanks especially for the clarification re the RTT you were experiencing. I would expect different operators to have different variations in latency etc. So I'm now wondering whether the packet loss conditions on Voda Italy connection you were using were worse - as this is the other factor that could influence the size of the window that TCP ramps up to.

The reason why I'm skeptical about traffic shaping is because I don't believe that they would be so clever! :-)

Martin said...

Jag and Dean,

I feel a bit odd discussing what I have written and replied on my blog on somebody else's blog... I'll try once again to redirect to my original blog entry and my replies:


Sorry about that,