What if I told you a major international wireless carrier was making everyone pay the usual data rates for some sites, but was serving a few favored ones for free. Actually, what Orange said was that they are partnering with Wikimedia to provide Africa and the Middle East free access to the ever-useful Wikipedia online encyclopedia, meaning that it doesn’t count toward their data usage. The new partnership will be launched gradually during 2012 across Orange’s footprint.
It’s a noble goal, to help bring facts to places where they are harder to come by and thus provide for the public good. Of course it helps that Wikipedia bits aren’t big bandwidth hogs like video – they don’t add up to much anyway per subscriber. On the other hand, it could also be another foot in the door in Europe and the USA against network neutrality. Some websites included for free, others adding to usage? Is this functionally different from favoring your own video offering while capping OTT traffic?
Well in this case, they aren’t gaining any direct benefit from it, just goodwill. The indirect benefit of establishing another dividing line between good traffic and bad, or in this case charitable traffic and everything else, is far in the background.
The European incumbents are under pressure these days from people using less of traditional voice and SMS and more over-the-top instant messaging and VoIP. KPN has been particularly loud on the subject, but Orange isn’t too happy about things either. The more justification they can generate for treating different types of traffic differently, the easier it will be to break the global network neutrality lobby once and for all.
It’s a masterful bit of jujitsu, really. The proponents of network neutrality tend to like free, Wikipedia, and helping spread information to the far corners of the world. They will find it hard to complain about Orange segregating the data it delivers like this, and then will find themselves a bit out of position for the next riposte. Or maybe I’m just too suspicious…