BoingBoing stalwart Xeni Jardin and I have been talking about terms of service for cellular 3G services lately: She's posted some of our exchanges over at the BoingBoing site, notably about Verizon Wireless's incredibly limited permission to use EVDO for Web browsing, email, and intranet applications, and then later, Cingular's very similar language for their UMTS/HSDPA service. I was unable to find the terms of service for Sprint Nextel's EVDO data offering nor T-Mobile's GPRS/EDGE service.
Now, I'm not saying that these 3G terms are wholly unreasonable, just awfully broad--they exclude all host-based services, meaning any application in which a computer has to act as a server, no matter how that figures into a larger function. They also ban VoIP and streaming media as well as sharing among multiple computers. They also have the right (language varies between VZW and Cingular) to cut you off for whatever violation they think you might have caused to happen, including undefined excessive use.
What's so interesting about this isn't, of course, that cell operators have put fine print restrictions on services they advertise as unlimited in big type, and that they have consistently positioned in relation to Wi-Fi. Verizon, particularly, has sounded a long and loud gong about how Wi-Fi only works over a few hundred feet--ignoring enterprise installations like that at EVDO licenser Qualcomm and hotzones and metropolitan deployments--and has all kinds of speed limits on it.
You can't state on the one hand that Wi-Fi is restrictive, non-ubiquitus, and slow while imposing "smart" network penalties on your so-called superior service. 3G is great. I've tested it, I love it, it's an amazingly freeing and fantastic technology. But it's not Wi-Fi, and these kinds of restrictions are more evidence as to the fundamental difference. Wi-Fi is generally run as an Isenbergian stupid network; 3G is smart with all the limitations that imposes. Licensed spectrum is scarce and they have to conserve it; unlicensed spectrum is a commons, and we all tread carefully or lose it together. (In fact, Verizon et al want network neutrality removed so that they can control services on their wired broadband networks, too.)
I'd like to do a taste test and ask readers who subscribe to for-fee hotspots networks or locations that charge fees and have terms of service to send me the applicable paragraphs that refer to what's acceptable for usage. Obviously, tens of thousands of hotspots allied with Boingo Wireless and others think VoIP is fine because they support Skype. And streaming music and video is practically advertised as a reason to use some hotspots. If you work at a hotspot provider, chime in, too. Tell us about how you regulate usage. Post in the comments below or drop me an email.
Let me start with T-Mobile HotSpot. After lengthy looks at several documents, I can't find any list of prohibited activities or services. The most direct statement I can find outside of illegal and unwanted activities (like "no sending unsolicited email") is this: "We may impose credit, usage or Service limits, suspend Service, or block certain kinds of usage in our sole discretion to protect users or our business." It's broad and deep, but sounds like a last resort legal expression instead of a specific policy statement. You can't share a T-Mobile connection or account, either, but that's pretty much the standard line for Internet accounts.