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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Vodafone zero-rating Facebook traffic on its new FB-specific device?

I've just had a poke around my local Vodafone store in central London.

Most interesting thing I saw was a display for its new HTC ChaCha phone and plan. The phone itself is a small touchscreen + QWERTY device which has a dedicated Facebook button and branding. The point-of-sale material contains the phrase "An extra 250MB of free UK data for Facebook".

Now the interesting question is exactly what that means, and how that policy is constructed / enforced. Is it an "application-specific" charging mechanism, or perhaps more "device-specific", similar to a BlackBerry plan?

Some supporting evidence comes from the brochure. "We've created a special Pay Monthly price plan just for the HTC Cha Cha, that lets you access Facebook more often".

That raises a whole set of questions. I didn't have a chance to play with the device so I'm not sure exactly how the Facebook experience works, but it seems to be deeply integrated into the phone. The FB button "pulses whenever you do something that provides an opportunity to share content or updates" with one-touch uploads. Does the Facebook app display "shared" content from elsewhere, eg web pages or videos? Do these count in the 250MB? And is that 250MB actually dedicated to Facebook (however defined) or have they just increased the normal allowance of 500MB to 750MB and just assumed that most will be Facebook anyway, given the nature of the device? The brochure has a slightly different wording: "extra 250MB of free UK data that you can use on Facebook". There's no word "only" in there.

Asking the shop assistant didn't clarify much. She initially said "Yes, you can use it for Facebook, Twitter, whatever!". When asked again, and more specifically, whether it was just zero-rated for FB, she seemed less certain "Er, I'm not sure of the details".

It's also unclear whether this only refers to the in-built Facebook client. What happens if FB releases any other apps that get downloaded separately, such as its new Instant Messenger service?

Another interesting observation: there is no mention of the word "Android" anywhere in the paper marketing material that I could see, although on the website it's clearly marked as a GingerBread device. There's no extra clarity on the Facebook-specific data plan terms though.

I'll have a punt that the shop assistant is right, and that there's no clever DPI-based filtering of Facebook traffic vs. other websites.

If anyone from Vodafone would like to comment (anonymously or otherwise), please feel free.

EDIT 11th August: I've had some feedback about this post now, and about the ChaCha's data plan. My guess was correct - it's not based on DPI filtering and prioritisation, or even formal "zero-rating". It's a device-specific tariff including an extra 250MB of data, useable however the user wants, not just for Facebook. This notion that a device-specific tariff could be a sort of “back door” way of doing app-specific policy without falling foul of Net Neutrality, was something I’d floated in a white paper last year: http://www.scribd.com/doc/45784876/Policy-Mgmt-Paper-1-Role-of-DPI-and-Device-Awareness


gz said...

agree doubtful intricate DPI solution.

also interesting from mobile net neutrality perspective?

Anonymous said...

NetNeut wise interesting what VF is selling. Facebook app as a service up to 250mb UK data?

Does VF UK have a non internet pipe to facebook with a cap and permission dialog to exceed 250mb?

Will this phone/app also work over private wifi and 3rd party public wifi?

Ordinary user can be in for a big surprise; user experience or bill wise.

Anonymous said...

I don't why we need to talk about intricate solutions - its really not that hard to implement zero rating solutions for specific IPs or URLS, doing so for facebook would be no harder than it is to zero rate access to the operator's own website - which many operators do.

Just lumping an extra 250Mb on the plan is a pretty lazy solution although commercially I suspect if you start zero rating Facebook you would see your data revenues go through the floor.

RichardArthur said...

This might start to become interesting when, with flat rate plans going away, someone like Facebooks pays to have a co-branded handset out there with unlimited Facebook access.
I predict this is coming as a consequence of current trends: