Optus has followed in Telstra’s footsteps by simplifying its mobile plan offerings and scrapping restrictive lock-in contracts. Part of the overhaul includes the introduction of Optus One, a top-tier plan that comes with a slew of perks including ‘network priority’ during congested periods.
Unfortunately this goes against the concept of net neutrality.
This article was originally published on November 25 at 9:18pm.
The principle of net neutrality is that one packet of data shouldn’t be prioritised over another. All data should all be treated equally regardless of the data type, user, their internet connection or application.
While net neutrality has been a larger topic of conversation in the United States, it made headlines earlier this year over what was colloquially referred to as the Netflix Tax.
At the time, NBN Co asked its 50 biggest retail service providers whether they would be willing to charge extra for video streaming.
Considering that everything from social media to websites to streaming utilises video, this would have a monumental impact on Australian broadband services.
Once the story hit the news, there was a national outcry. People wanted to know why NBN Co wanted to deprioritise video traffic unless a premium was placed on it. Unsurprisingly, NBN Co quickly abandoned this idea after the widespread concern.
However, Optus is now coming to the table with a premium tiered mobile plan for $119 a month. In addition to a whopping 500GB of data (that can be shared), restaurant specials and one-to-one customer service, one of the perks is network priority during congested periods.
As such, if the Optus network is busy, Optus One members will receive better service. One way to think about it is business class vs economy. Or the fast lane of a highway.
The newly minted Optus One web page describes the service thusly:
A customer service representative also described the service in a similar way.
“If you are on Optus One plan you will be getting Higher Priority when you are in Busy Area compared to Other plans, the speed of contact will be higher with this plan,” they said to Gizmodo Australia.
When asked for clarification around what this means in regards to data packets, they said “your speed will always be on higher priority and as well as data packets which you will be sending from your phone will reach the other person sooner.”
In an emailed statement to Gizmodo Australia, an Optus spokesperson described the benefit somewhat less vibrantly.
“Where there is heavy demand on a cell, the Optus One customers can expect to get a slightly improved level of service. It will have a negligible impact on existing user experience.”
Hard numbers in regards to the speed difference between Optus One and non Optus One accounts is understood to be confidential.
While this difference between plans will have significantly less impact than if NBN Co were to charge extra for all video data packets, the move is still important.
While Optus isn’t the first telco to offer an improved data experience to customers, it is the only one currently offering such a service to non-business customers.
However, Telstra does still offer ‘business grade data’ to enterprise customers on its Business Premium Mobile Fund plans.
“Business Grade Data is a network capability which can kick-in to help provide a more reliable data download experience during unexpected high traffic times whilst using 4G on our Telstra Mobile Network. Business Grade Data will be automatically enabled on all eligible plans,” says the Telstra website.
Of course, it can’t be ignored that NBN offers different speeds at different price points. Artificial speed constraints have been put in place in order to maximise revenue. Someone on an NBN 100 plan is going to get a faster connection than someone on NBN 25.
But one can argue that there is a difference between offering varied speed tiers and charging for priority access when a network is congested.
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While Optus One may be one seemingly small example of the best quality internet being reserved for those who can afford it, it’s a slippery slope.
Net neutrality isn’t enforced in Australia, so this has the potential to open the floodgates for other ISPs looking to further raise profit margins.
This sentiment is shared by Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), a non-profit organisation that advocates for the protection of digital rights in Australia.
“EFA is always concerned about Internet access and affordability. It is a rights issue, and increasingly so as more and more services and functions from government and business move online,” said a spokesperson for the organisation.
“We know that Australian’s already find affording Internet tough, and there are families that forego essentials because they have to stay connected for schooling, health and income reasons. Many Australians rely on their phone and mobile data as their only source of Internet access, so mobile plans are incredibly important and relevant in terms of access and affordability.”
Net neutrality is also a concern for the organisation.
“Net Neutrality issues are also a concern for EFA, it seems that telco’s can’t help themselves but impinge on this as they search for higher profits. It is not acceptable to have companies doing deals on Internet content, it will impact on an open, fair, and competitive Internet for all users.”
Unlike the EFA, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) does not appear to have an issue with Optus offering network priority to certain customers, and offered similar comments to when the ‘Netflix Tax’ debacle blew up back in July.
“The ACCC cannot comment on specific businesses or complaints. We continue to closely monitor developments related to net neutrality in Australia and any potential implications for consumers and competition,” said a spokesperson in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
“Retail service providers must be transparent about their network arrangements and ensure that consumers have enough information to make appropriate decisions.”
This is not the first time that Optus has danced around net neutrality in Australia. At a CommsDay event in 2015 Optus CEO Allen Lew suggested that streaming providers such as Netflix pay a fee for continued quality service.
“We will continue to preserve net neutrality but we’re talking about the possibility … [of offering] a premium service that we as a network provider can ensure to an [over-the-top] provider if they pay for that premium service.”
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An earlier version of this story stated that Optus was the first telco to offer network priority service to mobile customers. Telstra has also offered this to some business accounts over the last few years. We regret the error.