x-no-data-charges

by @edent | , | 4 comments | 650 words | Read ~178 times.

Here's an idea that can't possibly work.

People used to pay-per-minute for telephone calls. Some numbers were "zero-rated". That is, if you called them you wouldn't be charged. At first1 it was calls to the emergency services which were free. Businesses and other organisations realised that it was good customer service to provide a free-to-call number. Generally speaking, this means that the called-party pays the phone company for incoming call rather than the caller paying2. Thus 08003 numbers were born.

Why don't we have something similar for the mobile web? Lots of people pay per MB for data - or have limited data caps. Wouldn't it be nice if sites could say "don't charge the user for this - charge our site instead!"?

Clearly, what's needed is a new HTTP Header. Something like x-no-data-charges.

Simples‽

We Already Have This

Last year, I had a small part to play in the scheme to zero-rate data for UK mobiles accessing the NHS websites:

Later, this was extended to several important charities.

In these cases, the mobile networks got together and agreed to waive the charges. The sites didn't need to do any special configurations at their end4.

Many years ago, when Facebook still pretended that it cared about bringing free Internet to the developing world, it offered poor countries free access to Facebook. And maybe a few other sites.

I tried to get this blog added to the free programme - but nothing ever came of it.

Similarly, lots of mobile networks in the UK will give you UNLIMITED NETFLIX which doesn't eat into your regular data cap. How does a Netflix competitor get on to that deal? Pay up! Do big deals with big companies. Small fry need not apply.

There are problems with this.

Here's what happened when Wikipedia and Facebook were made free-to-browse in Angola:

Wikimedia and Facebook have given Angolans free access to their websites, but not to the rest of the internet. So, naturally, Angolans have started hiding pirated movies and music in Wikipedia articles and linking to them on closed Facebook groups, creating a totally free and clandestine file sharing network in a country where mobile internet data is extremely expensive.
Motherboard - "Angola’s Wikipedia Pirates Are Exposing the Problems With Digital Colonialism"

Could this happen here?

Imagine that *.NHS.uk was zero-rated for mobile users. Is there a tiny cottage hospital running an outdated webserver somewhere on the NHS estate? I'll bet there is5. How long before pirates would start abusing that service? Sure, the infosec teams would shut it down quickly. But that's a hassle.

What about the embedded content on a page? No one hosts their own videos. So do we have to zero-rate YouTube? What about the CDNs serving all the CSS and JavaScript?

Who pays?

What does it realistically cost to deliver a MB of data? Over a satellite phone, about US$245 for 100MB. No webmaster wants to pay that!

How would you even invoice for this properly? It's hard6 to abuse the phone network so much that you'd bankrupt an 0800 number. But I'm sure sender-pays-data would be abused the instant it was turned on.

Is this a good idea?

No. But sometimes it's fun to run with an idea to see how awful it is.


  1. This is a gross oversimplification. If you want more details go read a book, not a blog. 
  2. See 1 
  3. Or 1-800 if you're in the North American Numbering Plan. 
  4. Although they may have supplied a list of domains, IP ranges, etc. 
  5. Although I have no evidence. 
  6. But not impossible. 

4 thoughts on “x-no-data-charges

  1. Also European (not that the UK is bound by this anymore, but ...) courts are starting to crack down on zero-rating of commercial (e.g. netflix) traffic engadget.com/eu-zero-rating…


  2. @Edent I keep meaning to contact voxi and ask them why mastodon.radio isn't covered by their unlimited social media offer...

  3. Neil Brown says:

    I’m not sure this is “no charges” as much as “reverse charges”?!

    Applying telco voice multi-level interconnect billing complexity to IP - aargh 🙁

  4. Interesting Terrance. You know what I wish we could make happen? Enable Charge to Call for our own phones. The amount of spam and fraud calls is getting out of hand, and causing serious harm.

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