Mobile Broadband Carriers Rail Against Net Neutrality

Not only is the Federal Communications Commission considering rules that would extend and codify the agency's network neutrality principles for wireline broadband providers, the FCC is also considering extending those rules to wireless networks. Not surprisingly, the wireless carriers found little to like in the proposal.

Wireless broadband carriers responded quickly to the Federal Communications Commission's Oct. 22 decision to begin consideration of network neutrality rules that would apply to wireless networks. Currently, wireless carriers are exempt from the FCC's four network neutrality principles and, not surprisingly, the carriers found little to like in the proposal.

The proposed rules would codify the agency's four existing network neutrality principles and add two more rules of the road for broadband providers: a prohibition against ISPs (Internet service providers) from discriminating against content or applications and a mandate that network management practices are transparent. The rulemaking process also seeks input on extending those rules to wireless carriers.

The draft rules make clear that broadband providers, both wired and wireless, would be permitted to address reasonable network management issues such as harmful traffic unwanted by users, such as spam, and prevent both the transfer of unlawful content, such as child pornography, and the unlawful transfer of content, such as a transfer that would infringe copyright.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was cautious in choosing his words about the applicability of network neutrality rules and wireless networks.

"Openness is essential for the Internet however it's accessed. It doesn't make sense to have one Internet when your laptop is plugged into a wall and another when accessing the Internet through a wireless modem," Genachowski said. "At the same time, wireless networks are different from wired networks. Given fundamental differences in technology, how, when and to what extent open Internet rules should apply to different access platforms, particularly mobile broadband, will undoubtedly vary."

Genachowski's comments at least gave the wireless carriers something positive to say about the proposed FCC rules.

"We agree wireless is different, and believe that whatever the case may be for applying rules to other platforms, applying these rules to mobile wireless broadband services during a period of dynamic innovation and change in the wireless ecosystem could have significant unintended consequences," CTIA, the trade group for wireless carriers, said in a statement.

That said, CTIA said extending network neutrality to their members is a mistake.

"Rules that could impact the ecosystem from continuing to evolve, such as the ability of wireless carriers, device makers and applications developers to optimize their devices, applications, and networks to work together will stifle innovation and harm consumers," the group said.

CTIA also contends the "imposition of net neutrality rules will degrade the value of unencumbered licenses purchased in the most recent auctions and threaten the integrity of the auction process." In the 2008 700 MHz auction, the FCC imposed openness conditions for the prize chunk of the spectrum eventually won by Verizon. "To extend that requirement, and more, now would raise serious legal issues and threaten the integrity of future auctions."

But as the FCC's NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) notes, since the adoption of the open platform requirement for the Upper 700 MHz C-Block, a number of wireless service providers have voluntarily adopted certain open access features. The Open Handset Alliance, for instance, has developed the Android platform, a free, open-source mobile operating system.

"As this history illustrates, the Commission is not writing on a blank slate in this proceeding. Rather, we are proposing a next step -- seeking public input on draft rules -- that is based on a substantial record, which includes discussion of non-discrimination, transparency and application of Internet openness principles to wireless broadband Internet access service providers," the NPRM states.

Last year, T-Mobile and Google unveiled the first Android device. Further, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have announced efforts to provide greater openness of their networks to devices and applications.

Sprint-Nextel also fretted about unintended consequences.

"As the Commission recognizes, wireless networks have unique challenges and we are pleased the Commission is taking a holistic approach to wireless carriers' 'reasonable network management' practices," Vonya B. McCann, SVP of Government Affairs for Sprint-Nextel, said in a statement. "The challenge, however, will be ensuring that any proposed rules achieve this goal without creating unintended consequences or clogged networks. Sprint looks forward to assessing carefully each aspect of the Commission's proposal to determine how best to achieve our shared goal while protecting the integrity of the Sprint's networks and services."

Perhaps anticipating the wireless industry's opposition, Genachowski also pointed out, "I come to this issue with a keen recognition that we do not yet have all the answers, and that we have a lot of hard work to do. But again, that is precisely the reason to begin this chapter of the process in a way that sets the table for an informed, fruitful discussion about issues of real importance to the future of the Internet and our country."

The agency is seeking public comment on the proposed rules with initial comments due by Jan. 14 and reply comments due by March 5.