More expensive access: can ISPs make it stick?

I like big bytes and I cannot lie

We've long assumed that data is data no matter where it comes from. It turns out that we're wrong.

Earlier this week, boffins at MIT analysed different kinds of data and discovered something extraordinary: data packets of identical size don't necessarily have the same mass.

The analysis is ongoing, but so far it seems that some kinds of data have more mass than others. The mass of a Skype data packet is roughly twice that of a YouTube packet; YouTube in turn has around ten times the mass of an otherwise identical data packet containing email rather than video. As a rule of thumb, the more compressed data is the more mass the resulting packets will have.

My memories of O Level physics are pretty shaky, but even I know that the more mass something has, the more force you need to move it around the place - and I reckon it's a safe bet that the people who move those packets around the Internet, ISPs, will reflect that in their pricing.

It's just a matter of time before you're paying not per megabyte or gigabyte, but per service: email may be free, but YouTube will cost you - and you can forget about lag-free gaming if you're not willing to pay for it.

Mass effects

I am, of course, talking out of my backside - but unfortunately not everything I've written above is a load of rubbish. I'm lying about MIT and mass, but I'm telling the truth about tiered pricing. In the US, two firms' ideas for tiered mobile data prices made their way to, while GigaOm reports that European operators want to charge more for specific types of applications at specific times of day.

On the face of it, it's no big deal: if one mobile operator wants to charge more for YouTube, simply choose one that doesn't. But per-service pricing is more insidious than that. By making this service expensive and that service cheap, ISPs can distort the market.

Is there any reason why uploading photos to Facebook should cost more than uploading to Flickr or sending the same shots by email? Should iPlayer cost more than Sky Player? Gmail more than email?

I can understand the argument that you should pay for the amount of data you use - I'm online all day and hammer my connection; there's no way my elderly, occasional-browser neighbours should pay anything close to what I pay for broadband - and I understand that limits to mobile capacity might mean paying more for guaranteed speeds at peak times in busy areas.

That's fair enough.

What's not fair is for ISPs to make stuff up, to arbitrarily decide that one Facebook is worth three Twitters, a quarter of a YouTube and a bit of Bebo.

Because as we all know, data is data no matter where it comes from.