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« $600 a Week Wi-Fi? | Main | LucidLink Creator Shuts Down »

November 10, 2005

Can Wi-Fi Beat 3G on Terms of Service?

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.


Are you talking about Skype over Wi-Fi as an alternative to cellular?

Or are you lamenting the fact that some 3G operators are prohibiting VoIP on their networks?

The former is a very interesting discussion that the industry should have. How we originate and terminate calls to users roaming from one "stupid network" to another is an important set of issues that has yet to be resolved with commercial services. Between Wi-Fi, mesh, 3G and WiMAX, there are a lot of options. And we can include IMS in the fray.

As for the latter point, I'm willing to bet that there will eventually be VoIP on 3G networks. It might not be Skype, and it will probably cost something, but it'll be there.

[Editor's note: Not lamenting at all, and it's perfectly within the rights of any Internet service provider to define terms. With competition, as there is in the cellular data market, bad terms will lead to customers shifting to better terms, if those terms are important.

Rather, I'm pointing out that folks like George Gilder and Andy Seybold and a host of others want to portray 3G as a Wi-Fi replacement and successor, despite issues with backhaul, cell overuse, and Wi-Fi rapid improvements in speed, range, and interference. They're clearly complementary technologies.

With terms such as the two cell operators I cited, 3G cannot be a replacement for Wi-Fi because it has such limited legitimate allowed uses. Forget whether those uses are enforced or not -- no one wants to sign or accept a contract that states they explicitly cannot use services that they know are key to their purpose in using the service in the first place.--gf]

iBahn has a T&S document, but state nothing about what is allowed or disallowed.

Guest-Tek only has a privacy policy...

The Wayport policy (at state things pretty specifically what are accepted uses.

Conversely, I can't find anything specific from Freedomlink, other than a "Does FreedomLink block any specific types of traffic?" question, which is answered "Due to the proliferation of viruses, worms and other malicious activity on the Internet, we block specific ports to increase the security of our network."

Of course, all of this is in lieu of reading a T&S when connecting to their sites... I only have a Wayport McDonald's nearby, and the T&S & AUP is presented before I can click thru to get access.