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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

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Free WiFi white paper - Opportunities for Mobile Operators

I've been covering mobile offload of 3G/4G networks for 3+ years, and wider uses of dual-mode WiFi/cellular devices for about 8 years. Recently, the needle has moved towards WiFi adoption by mobile operators, catalysing a series of new standards developments and industry initiatives.

We've seen a huge set of operators build out or acquire WiFi networks - KDDI, AT&T, China Telecom, Orange and many others. Although some remain skeptical (Hutchison 3, for example), others such as Telefonica O2 have gone to the other extreme and examined building WiFi to "onload" subscribers that don't normally use their network - essentially providing connectivity as an OTT-style service. There is a huge amount of work going on to improve scaling, performance, security, authentication and so forth. Improved convenience and visibility for WiFi is indeed urgently needed - especially on smartphones where the user experience is often clunky today.

In recent months I've written a series of blog posts about WiFi recently - in particular, the fallacies of the idea of "seamlessness" and the almost Machiavellian moves of some cellular industry bodies to attempt to control/own the technology.

I've now published a free White Paper on the opportunities of WiFi for mobile operators, which looks at business cases and usage models, as well as technology evolution and pitfalls. It covers all these issues with examples, explanation and opinion - and introduces the concept of "WiFi Neutrality" I mentioned on my blog yesterday.

You can download the paper here

If you'd like more detail, or to commission an inhouse workshop, public presentation or consulting advisory project, please get in touch via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

[Disclosure: The paper is sponsored by a client of Disruptive Analysis, iPass Inc. As in all such cases, I only take on commissioned work where I retain editorial independence, and where I have broad agreement on key trends & future industry direction before I start writing - or where they feel that airing my contrarian views advances the wider industry debate. Such companies probably deserve bravery awards given that I don't shy away from controversy].

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Multi-WiFi future - the need for WiFi Neutrality

I'm increasingly convinced that mobile device / computing users will need sophisticated WiFi connection management tools in the near future. Specifically, ones that allow them to choose between multiple possible accesses in any given location, based on a variety of parameters. I'm also doubtful that anyone will want to allow a specific service provider's software to take control and choose for them - at least not always.

We may see the emergence of "WiFi Neutrality" as an issue, if particular WiFi accesses start to be either blocked or "policy-managed" aggressively. Seams will be neat and well-tailored, rather than connection being "seamless" as the (increasingly discredited) hype would have it.

In general, it is always important to remember that WiFi is not, primarily a "service"technology. It is simply a wireless form of local networking - quite literally, WLAN. While hotspots, metro-WiFi and other manifestations of WiFi are delivered as services - and we are now getting enhanced standards to simplify this - ultimately WiFi will always act in dual "modes": both private (owned) connections, and public (service) ones. As a good guide, no company should be active in WiFi if it doesn't already understand fixed LANs and ethernet more generally.

Certainly, some measure of control is now being given to operators by new standards being proposed. For example, 802.11u which allows WiFi APs to "advertise" certain capabilities and status, beyond the simple SSIDs (network names) of today. Coupled with 3GPP's Access Network Decision and Selection Function (ANDSF), there is certainly a move by which operators could effectively push users (or their devices) towards particular WiFi networks, in a similar way to roaming steering today.

Indeed, there is a school of thought that we are moving towards an operator-controlled world of future WiFi networks - with suggestions that users should just allow their devices to be kept automatically "on-net" within their carrier's own "safe" WiFi domain, or those of its partners.

The implicit (and almost always unstated) Faustian pact here is the user should willingly trade flexibility of WiFi choice, for the convenience of operator-driven connectivity - with all the cost and policy side-effects that may entail. The argument often draws heavily on analogies with international roaming - who wants to manually select their visited network from an obscure menu on your handset, with uncertain cost implications?

I believe that the analogy is deeply flawed. Roaming certainly has an important role to play in WiFi connectivity, but largely as a good mechanism for authentication and billing/settlement model, but with a much greater level of user intervention and awareness than is currently the case in cellular.

In cellular networks, it can reasonably be assumed that the "on-net" or preferred-partner roaming option will be the cheapest (or perhaps, least-egregiously expensive). Because of the way that data-roaming and the wholesale market is constructed (with all data routed back via your home provider), the likelihood is that competing "visited" operators will charge a fortune to your home operator, which then gets passed onto you. Data roaming is almost never free, except if you've signed up to some special regional cooperative plan.

Almost exactly the opposite is true in WiFi. Because most WiFi "breaks out" locally to the public Internet, you pay the same price as local users - and it's often free. The chances are quite high that "roamed" WiFi may well be more expensive than the default local choice.

For example, imagine going to a hotel for a conference. The hotspot may well be roam-able, and perhaps cheaper than the rip-off "rack rate" of €15 a day via an operator partnership. But it's still unlikely to be an option you'd prefer to use, compared with the freebie conference-delegate code provided by your event hosts. In such a circumstance you'd feel justly aggrieved if you got home to be presented with a bill.

There are numerous other situations where there will be multiple usable WiFi options, with different capabilities, prices and even brand affiliations. I visited a pub recently that had a Heineken-sponsored SSID, as well as the pub's own WiFi. It's quite possible to imagine that model being extended to promotions and added-value applications. Being locked-out of specific providers' access will be a fast route to customer dissatisfaction and churn. And because WiFi uses unlicenced spectrum, it's quite possible that regulators will take a dim view of excessive controls enforced by particular companies.

At the moment, this has yet to become a huge issue: this is merely a prediction of the future, but in my view a quite probable and realistic one. Operators and vendors should start making commitments today that future "seamless" WiFi offload and onload infrastructures will not contravene a wider expectation of "WiFi Neutrality".

Meanwhile, device vendors and specialist software providers should aggressively look for options for optimised user experience in managing multi-WiFi contexts. Investors should also look at those startups and innovators that can exploit the new standards, whilst putting neutrality and user-control front and centre.

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