Australian internet is internationally famous for being a bit shit, and that's partially down to how spectacularly cooked the NBN rollout has been. But rather than put forward suggestions on how to improve the situation, or maybe ask resellers ways they can improve the end-user experience for suffering Australians, NBN Co has come up with a cracker of an idea to make our internet even worse.
A foundational principle of the internet is what's called net neutrality, or the principle that one packet of data shouldn't be prioritised over another packet of data. If you want to stream a video, play a video game, read a site in a browser, your internet should treat all of that data with the same level of priority. Equity in internet usage, basically.
But with the rise of video streaming, and the effect Netflix and streaming services have had on internet usage over the last decade, conversations have been kicking around in the industry about how to cope with that.
"Would your organisation support the development of a price response whereby charging of streaming video could be differentiated from the charging of other traffic/services?" NBN Co asked in their latest wholesale price review. "Would your organisation be likely to productise such a mechanism if developed by NBN?"
It's impossible to understate just how much of an impact this would have on general internet usage. Practically every internet user in Australia on a landline connection would be effected, because everyone at some point — even unknowingly — ends up streaming video at some stage. If NBN Co were to enforce traffic prioritisation for video streaming, or if ISPs signed up to the measure, it could easily result in users being asked to pay more to guarantee the same performance they receive when watching Twitch, using future streaming services like Google Stadia, and the potential discrimination of users based on their internet usage.
To the absolute surprise of no-one, industry isn't thrilled about the idea. Former iiNet chief technology officer John Lindsay said there was "absolutely no justification" for NBN Co to artificially throttle or deprioritise video traffic just to increase revenue. "If I send NBN Co a packet, I kind of expect them to carry it unmolested to my consumer," he told iTnews.
Others raised questions as to why NBN Co, a publicly funded corporation, was raising these kinds of questions in closed-door consultations and not being more open with the process. Regular internet users were outraged, remarking that the principle would effectively created a two-tiered, unfair internet system in Australia.
Kotaku Australia contacted Netflix for a response, but was told they "will not be commenting at this time".
This is fucking outrageous. This will cause issues for less well off internet users and break them into 2 tiers. Those who can afford to watch streaming services and those who can't.
NBN Co need to provide a wires and pipes service. Thats it. https://t.co/ycK1ckttXU
— Fenrir (@FilesOfDresden) July 1, 2019
— Monkey King (@SecretChimp) July 1, 2019
Hey @iiNet I expect you to stand up to this bullshit. We already pay too much for an unreliable service (not your fault) without being slugged for something the NBN should be able to cope with in the first place.
NBN Co floats its own 'Netflix tax' https://t.co/LhH2KuMtvy
— Ben (@PossumsAreJerks) July 1, 2019
If I was NBN Co struggling to make a return I would simply charge customers more money for the service they are already paying a lot of money for.
— Josh Taylor (@joshgnosis) July 1, 2019
— Justin Warren (@jpwarren) July 1, 2019
— ????Aaron Dodd (@AaronDodd) July 2, 2019
terrible terrible idea "NBN Co floats its own 'Netflix tax'" https://t.co/1IZD8oApv6
— James Croft (@jamescroft) July 1, 2019
"Try the new @NBN_Australia Fast 450 Tier. Fast typical speeds at midday Thursday for general browsing, plus ten hours of Netflix or fifteen hours of Stan free per month*. Basic Twitter included and ten free Instagram posts in your first month. Contact your RSP today!" https://t.co/lq0HGVYP7e
— Colourful Local Identity (@GordyPls) July 1, 2019
Grahame Lynch, the creator of CommsDay who originally reported the story, suggested that NBN Co's idea was "likely intended to charge less for video bits so you can have more of it".
Lots of misinformation around about NBN's idea of a separate video charge. The idea is likely intended to charge less for video bits, so you can have more of it (HD, 4K) with less wallet damage. It is part of a consultation that is framed around better value packages for RSPs
— Grahame Lynch (@Commsday) July 2, 2019
Despite reportedly declining to comment on consulations with industry prior, NBN Co provided a statement to Kotaku Australia confirmed the consultation process was seeking "feedback" on video streaming. "NBN Co is building the nbn to meet the needs of Australians today as well as delivering capacity upgrades to meet growing data demands into the future, which includes the provision of additional capacity within the network to accommodate the rise of streaming services," NBN Co's general manager of commercial, Ken Walliss, said.
NBN Co has released an industry-wide Wholesale Pricing Review Consultation Paper, which seeks RSP feedback on balancing industry economics with affordability and choice for customers. As part of this consultation process we’re interested in engaging in a constructive dialogue with Retail Service Providers (RSPs) and the industry about any challenges and opportunities they may face. Video streaming is an important part of using broadband for many customers and a significant proportion of overall internet traffic and future traffic growth, and one of the particular areas where we are seeking feedback.
The focus of the paper is not about levying additional charges on customers, but rather to engage with RSPs and the industry on how we can collectively deliver the best possible service to customers, including for video services.
But as is often the case with any regulation or legislation, it's not the intent that matters, but what's permissible. And the major sticking point is still one of basic infrastructural fairness.
"This [proposal] would discriminate against people according to their usage of the internet," Phillip Britt, Aussie Broadband managing director, told iTnews. "It’s not how it works nearly everywhere else in the world, and we don’t believe it should happen here in Australia."