Should We Have a Network Neutrality Panic Together over MetroPCS 4G?

image Dallas-based mobile communications provider MetroPCS has received a lot of positive press recently, in response to their move to be the first 4G LTE provider in the country (and continuing to provide that service without the soul-crushing long-term contracts most other providers are known for).

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb and Ryan Kim at GigaOM are both playing up how this will likely play an important role in the “struggle over network neutrality or tiered pricing by content type.”

Of course, like most posts about network neutrality (and likely this one you’re reading), they’re receiving lukewarm receptions from the general public (mostly due to lack of education on what network neutrality even means), and frenzied responses from network neutrality advocates.

Between the Marshall, Ryan and myself, I’m probably the only tech pundit who is a long-time customer of MetroPCS, so I figure it’s my duty to stand up for a company I stay with not because I’m locked into it, but because I voluntarily remain a customer.

Here’s the crux of what has people up in arms, as described in Kim’s post (emphasis added):

The MetroPCS’ LTE plans include three tiers. The $40 a month tier includes unlimited talk, text, 4G Web browsing with unlimited YouTube access. A $50 tier adds international and premium text messaging, turn-by-turn navigation, mobile instant messaging, corporate e-mail and 1 GB of additional data access (streaming services, VoIP and other services) with premium audio and video available through MetroSTUDIO when connected through Wi-Fi. For $60 a month, users also get unlimited data access and MetroSTUDIO premium content such as 18 video-on-demand channels and audio downloads.

Where this gets tricky is that users are allowed to have unlimited YouTube access and unlimited web browsing under the $40 tier. But to get broad unlimited Internet access for things like VoIP Skype, streaming video and audio services, data uploads and gaming services, users will have to move up to the $50 or $60 tier, MetroPCS’s Crowell said. Also, the $50 tier provides users access to MetroPCS’s MetroSTUDIO over Wi-Fi and unlimited access over broadband in the $60 tier.

The uproar is not that this price is too expensive for the services offered (because, in fact, it’s actually a much more affordable price than many wireline services offer for the same tier). The uproar is over the fact that the $50 tier offers some data services, and the $60 tier offers all data services.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about getting full data access on a service that doesn’t offer MiFi-style service, or even a full-on smartphone interface, but the typical crippled access to the web and apps we’re used to seeing from the Samsung semi-smartphone grade devices.

Here’s where Kim and others get things wrong.

What this all means is that users can browse Facebook all day long and could click on any YouTube links to see the video. But if they click on a link to another video service, users can visit the site but won’t be able to view the video. Facebook videos are also likely blocked as are streaming music services such as Pandora. Crowell said YouTube doesn’t have a special relationship with MetroPCS. It was just one of the most popular multimedia sites among MetroPCS consumers so the carrier decided to allow unlimited access to it.

MetroPCS has always had a few tiers that fall into these $40-$50-$60 ranges, and what their struggling with is how to price their service in a world that is increasingly using their phones primarily as notification devices rather than voice comunication devices.

More importantly, MetroPCS has a proud history of figuring these things out pretty quickly and offering more and more services for the same low prices. I remember when I signed back up to  MetroPCS in 2007 or so, after not using the service for a few years. Where I was required to be in the top tier to send text and picture messages in 2004, I could do so in the bottom tier in 2007. This year, I’ve been able to send emails and have data access from the middle tier, whereas two years ago I was required to be in the top tier. A few weeks ago, when I turned on my first true smart phone, I had to upgrade back up to the top tier.

Essentially, what I’m saying, is that until cheap consumer hardware (and network capacity) catches up to the market MetroPCS sells to, you’ll see pricing plans that make network neutrality advocates squeamish (if not shrill). It’s not motivated by a desire to screw the customer, though, but by a desire to stay in business while technology becomes more evenly distributed.

In a world where we’re using more stable and full featured smartphones (and dare I say, an Android dominated world), locking down app and web use will become a much more difficult proposition. Indeed, many MetroPCS users are now Android users (there are two Android phones on the MetroPCS roster now), and I know that I can never go back to anything less now that I’ve tasted a full fledged app and web experience. The market pressure from Android alone is likely enough to get MetroPCS to eventually change their stance on this.

Remember, before the iPhone debuted in 2007, we weren’t even thinking of our mobile devices as viable terminals for full fledged network access. It’s taken this long for us to get a meager selection amongst smartphone solutions. Let’s give the mobile carriers at least a few minutes to figure this stuff out before we crucify them.