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Fat Pipes and a Series of Tubes

Photo courtesy of yablo’s Flickr photostream.

Network providers quite naturally have considerable control over an end-user’s experience. Whether it’s the number of dropped calls from your wireless carrier, or the available speed from your broadband provider, the network you subscribe to can significantly impact the things you’re able to do.

Taking that premise as a given, should network providers be given the leeway to exert even more control? For example, should providers be able to regulate what devices plug in to their networks? What third-party applications are allowed?

There are advantages to giving operators more control. By regulating the applications allowed, operators can better manage bandwidth allocation and theoretically maintain the best balance between cost and quality of service. ISPs don’t limit application types, but have been known to shut off service when a user exceeds a specified bandwidth cap. Wireless providers on the other hand do limit application types. Would costs be higher if they didn’t?

In the cable world, control over both applications and devices is opening up. Thanks to OpenCable initiatives, CE manufacturers can make products that plug into the cable network, and other third-party developers can more easily create applications that work on cable hardware using OCAP. The cable industry isn’t about to relinquish all control and become merely a pipe provider, but a little bit of sharing is a good thing. Even Apple, king of owning the user experience, is admitting as much by partnering with Cingular for its iPhone. The way entertainment and media convergence is going, no one company can produce everything or control the entire consumer experience.

Finding the right level of control any one network provider should have will continue to be a balancing act. Technology standards help, as does (sometimes) regulatory intervention. (Like the 1968 Carterfone decision) But the truth is there’s no one, clear-cut answer. No doubt we’ll see the pendulum swing back and forth.

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