Three has become the first network operator in the UK to offer zero-rated data plans to their customers.
This is a landmark move, and we are very likely to see similar offers appear from rival networks in the coming months.
So what is zero-rated data?
Zero-rated data is a bold new strategy that gives customers free unlimited data, as long as it is used for certain services.
Three has partnered with Netflix, TVPlayer, Soundcloud and Deezer for their new zero-rated plans. This means customers can listen to as much music and watch as many movies as they like, without worrying about the impact on their data allowance.
Virgin Mobile introduced zero-rated plans last year for instant messaging services Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp, although the data consumption for these applications is almost insignificantly low when compared to video and audio streaming.
If zero-rated plans catch on, we can expect to see many social media sites, streaming and on-demand services partnering with a wide range of network operators. This means more choice for customers, so you can find zero-rated plans for your favourite websites and platforms.
This can also work in the other direction – encouraging customers to try out new services and websites with their free data. This means many companies will be eager to sign zero-rated deals with mobile networks to attract new customers, encouraging more choice and diversity in the options available to everyone.
It all sounds great. However, zero-rated data plans have come under fire over concerns about net-neutrality.
Keeping big business honest
Net-neutrality is a hotly debated topic that has received a lot of attention recently as millions of commenters and hundreds of websites, from Netflix and Spotify to porn sites and torrent directories, banded together on 12 July in response to FCC proposals to lift net-neutrality restrictions.
The FCC is the American version of Ofcom.
Net-neutrality laws around the world ensure that all websites and online services are given equal treatment from ISPs. This means all legal traffic, regardless of its content or urgency, is given equal priority across the ISP or mobile operator’s network.
Zero-rated data doesn’t break any current rules because the data itself doesn’t get any special treatment – it just happens to be free.
However, the spirit behind zero-ratings is exactly the sort of thing net-neutrality supporters want to prevent.
Supporters of net-neutrality argue that the current rules keep the internet a level playing field. Without them, new websites and services would struggle to provide a consistent service unless they pay ISPs for the privilege.
If net-neutrality is abolished, it may be impossible for the next Facebook or Reddit to rise out of obscurity. In addition, non-profit websites, like Wikipedia, will find it much more difficult to operate in that landscape.
Others argue that net-neutrality prevents effective competition between ISPs and limits investment in internet infrastructure. Building new and better networks to give people the fastest possible internet is incredibly expensive, and net-neutrality laws make it harder for ISPs to maximise their profits – discouraging network growth.
It sure sounds like a lot of companies and corporations bickering over who gets to make the most money, but what does it all mean for customers?
If net-neutrality was abolished, ISPs could significantly widen their range of packages.
If you mainly use the Internet for watching Netflix and browsing Facebook, you could get a package with a better, cheaper service when you visit those websites.
Need super fast gaming and seamless music streaming? You could find a deal that suits your exact needs.
More choice for customers inevitably leads to better service and lower prices.
However, net-neutrality supporters argue that this won’t happen.
Instead of more choice, websites and services will be cut off from network support if they don’t play by the ISPs rules. Major websites could be essentially turned off overnight if the ISPs all agreed to cut service.
Dark and dangerous territory
Political affiliations or private interests could begin to control which websites can exist and which ones cannot.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to competition. As long as there are enough ISPs battling over customers with competitive deals and high speeds, it wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest to start blacklisting websites.
In the UK, we have a healthy variety of ISPs and mobile networks, and a strong industry regulator in Ofcom, so concerns over monopolisation aren’t as significant as in other countries.
If Three finds success with zero-rated data, and other networks follow suit, we could begin to get a clearer picture of what the UK would look like without the regulations of net-neutrality laws.
Whatever your opinion on the issue is, it sure is hard to say no to free data.