The principle of net neutrality does not apply to mobile broadband, according to Tata Communications, because operators are not able to deliver a satisfactory quality of service to their customers without prioritising certain types of network traffic.

Speaking at Tata's Global Media and Analyst Summit in Dubai this week, Allan Chan, the company's executive vice president of mobility services, said that a lot of mobile operators are struggling to deal with the rapid growth in data traffic, and have been forced to adopt techniques like bandwidth throttling in order to control it, which can be frustrating for the customer.

However, some network companies – including Tata with its IPX+ framework – are now looking at ways to manage traffic more intelligently, by charging end users, content providers or enterprises for faster, more reliable access to their applications. This is particularly necessary for bandwidth-hungry applications like real-time video calling or real-time gaming.

“We’re going to see the data stream change to more rich media applications, so we’ll see those applications become more real-time, more multi-user type of applications,” said Chan. “You'll see a lot of operators getting into more and more differentiated service models.”

Micro-managing the network in this way and giving priority to certain types of traffic goes against net neutrality – the guiding principle that preserves the free and open internet, and ensures that service providers may not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online.

Despite the fact that mobile data traffic more than doubled in 2011, and is expected to double again this year, there is no expectation that mobile broadband will be guided by the net neutrality principle, according to John Landau, senior vice president of technology and services evolution at Tata.

“Net neutrality was really a fixed broadband concept,” he said. “I think what’s going to be developing in mobile is around the term 'fair usage', which is a very different beast.”

Fair usage is the mobile broadband industry’s term for data management. It can include measures like data capping and throttling or – in the case of Tata's IPX+ framework – the use of transcoding and transrating techniques to manipulate traffic and manage media streams in such a way that users get a good quality experience, and no applications are blocked.

“The client device is going to suck every byte down that it can suck – it’s just its nature – and the content providers are going to send as much content as they can stuff – that’s their nature. And that’s going to kill the network guys and the user experience,” said Landau. “If the network guy gets a bad reputation, people will churn as soon as they can.”

Chan said that capping and throttling are very crude methods of data traffic management, because they are “on a collision course” with the tide of Big Data that is being propagated by the rest of the industry. By using network optimisation tools, that inspect the traffic flow and apply policies based on the type of traffic, service providers can guarantee bandwidth for applications that people want to use.

Landau added that fair usage is a self-enforcing principle because, without it, customers will walk away.

“It’s a law of physics – either it gets solved or we all suffer,” he said. “Net neutrality from the principle of not allowing walled gardens and non-competitive situations makes a lot of sense. Net neutrality that hurts the end user because the end user can’t buy what they want to buy – that becomes pretty stupid.”