Carriers maintain that they can make deals to give better-than-average QoS to individual providers of Internet applications, such as VoIP or movie downloading companies. But critics say the practice could slow applications that don't have priority and make the carrier the arbiter of what's most appealing on a consumer's broadband connection.The three major U.S. carriers emphasize that they allow their broadband subscribers access to any legal application they choose. The FCC spelled that out as a policy last August. But by arranging for some applications (including their own) to work better than others over a finite broadband connection, they could give the favored ones a key advantage, critics say.BellSouth has been in talks with providers of content and services for several months, according to spokesman Jeff Battcher. Among the potential customers are online gaming companies and providers of downloadable content, including Movielink and Warner Bros. Entertainment.AT&T, the company formed by the merger of SBC and AT&T, has a deal with Movielink by which the company can provide movie downloads at increased quality and speed over the carrier's network, says AT&T spokesman Dave Pacholczyk.Verizon is eyeing similar deals."Verizon offers open and unfettered access to the Internet on its high-speed DSL and fiber networks. To the extent consumers and application providers require additional speed or security, our networks can provide that too," says Verizon spokesman David Fish.However, a carrier can't sell priority to an unlimited number of service providers, BellSouth's Battcher acknowledges. If demand for enhanced QoS were high enough, the carrier would have to choose which providers got priority, he says. He would not speculate on whether or when that point might be reached, or how BellSouth would decide which services got priority.Bruce Kushnick, a founder of the consumer advocacy group Teletruth and a frequent critic of the incumbent carriers, says the concept turns broadband on its head."My service shouldn't have a priority system based on what the phone company wants, it should have a priority system based on what I want," Kushnick says. "I should be able to get any service at the speed that [the provider's] servers work." The carriers' real motivation is to give their own VoIP and multimedia services priority while leaving competitive offerings with nothing but best-effort Internet performance, Kushnick says.Helping one application or service run better isn't necessarily the benign benefit the carriers say, according to Ovum analyst Mark Seery. It could affect users even if they aren't using the offering that's getting a boost, he says. That's because even though a DSL connection isn't shared among several neighbors, as cable Internet service is, the capacity of other parts of the network is shared. A multimedia stream gobbling up bandwidth in the core of a network could slow down other packets."When you're using quality of service to implement a priority-based system, someone is always losing," Seery says.The FCC has been vague about how it would treat the proposals, Seery says. Under former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the agency responded quickly to complaints by Vonage that a carrier was trying to block its service.But the FCC hasn't made clear whether it would approach unequal QoS the same way, Seery says. He believes the major broadband providers in the United States will try to sell priority on their networks within the next two years, unless they are not be allowed to do it.