Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4S saw its smartphone arrive on more US carriers than ever before. In addition to the big boys, the phone will find a home on a smaller network, the recently-renamed C Spire Wireless. Along with Sprint, C Spire will offer unlimited data to iPhone users on its network, but will service restrictions get it in trouble with the FCC?
C Spire will offer the iPhone 4S with one of several service plans, all with “unlimited” data. For the two cheapest plans, at $50 and $70 a month (the latter with unlimited voice, as well), the carrier notes that you aren’t allowed to use the data connection for streaming. If you want to use YouTube or Pandora on your phone, the right to stream will cost you, at minimum, another $30 a month. Even if offering these plans was kosher, that’s one insane upgrade fee. Heck, you can get an entire service plan, with data, from T-Mobile for $30 a month.
The problem is that the FCC has new Net Neutrality rules going into effect before the end of the month, and it doesn’t look like this sort of blanket discrimination between streaming and non-streaming data sources will hold up to its scrutiny. Apparently, C Spire may be trying to get around this by offering free streaming on all its plans through the end of the year, later imposing a 30 minutes/month streaming cut-off for the cheap plans, but that just sounds like putting off the inevitable FCC conflict.
These plans aren’t exclusive to the iPhone, but the timing of the phone’s introduction, the timing of the FCC’s rules taking effect, and the attention given to unlimited data on the iPhone are combining to raise the profile of what C Spire’s doing.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this situation is just how patently absurd it is to consider streaming data differently from all other. What difference is it to a carrier if you stream a five-minute video, or download-then-watch five one-minute videos back-to-back? After all, what more is streaming but making that second process transparent, and with ever-shrinking slivers of time? You could argue that streaming keeps a connection open longer, depriving other users of access, but we’re comparing it against unlimited data plans here there’s nothing stopping users from keeping their connections open for just as long, even if they’re not streaming a thing.
This could end up being one of the first tests of the new Net Neutrality rules, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on how things play out.