Mobile operators predict application downloads will overtake voice services to become the industry's largest source of income by 2013, according to research.
But the resulting investment needed to support such greater mobile data use will upturn net neutrality principles, warns the study by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
According to the survey of mobile operator executives, 55% of those surveyed said operators should be allowed to charge content providers and prioritise network traffic for data use. Net neutrality maintains that the internet is neutral in terms of the way it treats traffic, and internet service providers and network operators are "mere carriers" of the traffic.
Quircoca principal analyst, Rob Bamforth, believes prioritisation and a clear price structure, rather than a flat tariff, is needed while the demand for data service applications is strong.
"If you're a mobile operator, you have to invest to make sure there's coverage and capacity. In order for that to happen, costly things like cell towers require major, up-front investment. You can't expect carriers to throw money at it and then restrict their charges. That's not viable way of doing it. There needs to be encouragement and reward for investment - and that's a tricky thing to engineer when there's regulators involved," said Bamforth.
Google and Verizon recently announced a net neutrality plan aimed a keeping the fixed-line internet free and open but suggesting different principles for wireless net services. Critics say the proposals will allow Verizon and other carriers to discriminate against certain traffic and possibly even favour their own services.