T-Mobile's G1

Net neutrality is more than just one of the current industry buzzwords, and according to T-Mobile, Android is smack dab in the middle of it all.  After reading a great article over at Fierce Wireless, I got to thinking about just how the outcome of the whole net neutrality issue can and will affect Android as a platform.  Hit the break to see my thoughts on the whole issue -- as well as an interesting tale about how some badly coded app nearly took down T-Mo's network. [FierceWireless]

Many of you know my feelings about openness and free open source software, so you can probably guess my position on net neutrality.  For the rest, I'm a firm believer that people who stand to profit from something should have no say in it's use or development.  Cellular carriers should not be allowed to police network traffic by throttling bandwidth under any circumstances, and if having things wide open isn't working, let someone elected (or appointed by those we elected) determine the policy.  And yes, I'm used to the hippie communist pokes I get for it, but those are my beliefs. 

On the other hand, you have the carrier point of view (we're sticking to cellular talk here, I'll fight with Comcast and Verizon FIOS in another venue).  I've always just written off their side of the argument as a by-product of corporate greed (cue those communist hippie jokes right about now).  But an article by Mike over at Fierce Wireless really caught my attention.  You should take the time to read it, so be sure to follow the source link when you're done here.  In T-Mobile's filing with the FCC in January of this year, they have a very interesting story about an improperly coded instant messaging application that damn near crashed their network in "certain densely populated network nodes".  Here's the quote, direct from the FCC filing :

"...T-Mobile network service was temporarily degraded recently when an independent application developer released an Android-based instant messaging application that was designed to refresh its network connection with substantial frequency. The frequent refresh feature did not create problems during the testing the developer did via the WiFi to wireline broadband environment, but in the wireless environment, it caused severe overload in certain densely populated network nodes, because it massively increased signaling—especially once it became more popular and more T-Mobile users began downloading it to their smartphones. One study showed that network utilization of one device increased by 1,200% from this one application alone. These signaling problems not only caused network overload problems that affected all T-Mobile broadband users in the area; it also ended up forcing T-Mobile’s UMTS radio vendors to reevaluate the architecture of their Radio Network Controllers to address this never-before-seen signaling issue. Ultimately, this was solved in the short term by reaching out to the developer directly to work out a means of better coding the application."

There is no mention of which application (we all have our guesses) or which locations, but it's a pretty scary scenario if you're a wireless carrier -- one "improperly" coded application could bring your network to its knees if it gets popular enough.  This could happen to the big boys (Verizon, AT&T) just as easily, considering the sheer number of subscribers.  T-Mobile goes on to say what we've already figured out by enjoying our Android phones to the fullest:

"T-Mobile has first-hand experience with ballooning demand for wireless broadband access, and in our experience, demand increases whenever new devices and new capabilities emerge. Customers with devices that lack full web browsing capabilities consume minimal amounts of data and require lower throughput. But that has changed as T-Mobile has introduced new devices with capabilities to make use of T-Mobile’s 3G network for all sorts of web-based applications.  Eighty percent of T-Mobile’s myTouch users now browse the web at least once per day, and two-thirds do so several times per day. Thirty percent of T-Mobile’s data traffic today consists of bandwidth-intensive video streaming—most of which is done by Android users."

And even more telling, in the full version of the FCC filing, including comments, we read this:

"The issue is not just that more wireless users are online. To compound matters, the type of wireless broadband usage has changed over time, as well. As speeds and handsets improve, wireless consumers use their devices for longer periods of time and for more bandwidth-heavy applications. For example, as we have reported, G1 handset users consume over 300 megabytes per month—more than 50 times the data of the average T-Mobile customer. More than 40 percent of T-Mobile myTouch users access social-networking sites multiple times per day. Over thirty percent of T-Mobile data traffic already consists of video streaming—a majority of which is attributable to Android users."

I'm done with the quotes.  You should really read both the filing by Grant Castle, Director of National Planning & Performance Engineering at T-Mobile USA and the detailed filing at the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System to get a handle on exactly why and how T-Mobile claims this affects their network, and how they feel they can fix it.

Back to the matter at hand -- T-Mobile has a point.  Our Android phones can do just about anything, and eat some serious network bandwidth while doing it.  Other smartphones can, too -- but I'll let Dieter, Kevin, Rene, and Mal Daniel handle that.  I don't want data caps, but their coming.  I didn't want to pay Sprint an extra $10.00 a month because their new Android phones can eat five times the bandwidth as last years models, but I did.  I certainly don't like paying the money to tether and get all I can eat, but I do.  I have brought myself to grips with all these, as there really isn't another solution that works for both sides, at least not one I can see.  And since I'm streaming a NetFlix movie on my home internet, and using Sprint's tethering package to download and install Gentoo Linux on a netbook while I write this, I'll pay the fees and not complain.

But apparently this isn't enough.  If T-Mobile is correct, and they will be unable to provide more important services like voice unless they have the control to "manage the network load and fairly serve the different needs of different users, devices and applications" (OK, one last quote), then we all will suffer.  My idea of letting the people willing to spend the most money and offer the best service come out the winner doesn't sound so practical anymore.  Letting T-Mobile (or Verizon, or AT&T, or even AlaskaTel) prioritize traffic to and from certain places (Bing! anyone?) doesn't sit well with me either.  And to top it all off, I really don't have faith that the FCC will make the right decision.  It's tough being a geek in the new millenium. One thing I do know -- if we can't give in to the carriers a little bit, they're not going to want to carry the next bandwidth-hogging Android wünderphone, or offer the full internet experience we've all come to enjoy. 

What I think is really important here, is that we all need to become involved in the whole net neutrality debate, because if we sit back and let someone else make the decisions we're not going to like the outcome.