A common debate at this year's MWC is the role of carriers as our mobile phone usage becomes increasingly data-heavy. During their press conferences, a number of the network operators' executives have spoken out, saying that they're tired of being seen as the bad guys as they try to get a return on their multi-billion dollar investment in spectrum and infrastructure. As Indian carrier Airtel's CEO Sunil Bharti Mittal said in a speech:
"we've become the bad gatekeepers. When somebody watches YouTube on a mobile phone and ends up [with a] big bill, he curses under his breath at the telecom operators. But YouTube is consuming a massive amount of resources on our network. Somebody's got to pay for that."
As things stand, carriers are unlikely to see a return on their network investments for around 3-4 years, which Telefonica Latin America CEO Santiago Fernandez Valbuena branded as a "future tax." The solution? Regulatory reform to make spectrum more freely available, and the ability to force bandwidth-heavy sites like YouTube to pay their way on the network.
This forms a part of the fight that carriers are facing to remain relevant and avoid a future as "dumb pipes" to other people's content. However, they are unlikely to find sympathy from consumers as they introduce tiered data plans with steep overages while penalizing providers of heavy content. The question being raised here is at the heart of net neutrality — should carriers be allowed to treat some content preferentially over others? In the US, the FCC hasn't committed to net neutrality on wireless networks, opening up the possibility that AT&T, Verizon et al. could follow the suit of these international carriers.