Network Neutrality's Real Battle: Mobile

As FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stands in support of net neutrality, the general consensus is that Internet service providers won't put up much of a fight for a mandated open wired Internet. The real battle, going forward, will be over wireless net neutrality, and how companies like AT&T and Verizon Wireless manage their networks.

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What hasn't really been discussed yet is what a neutral wireless network would look like. So far, the industry trade group CTIA and several wireless carriers have painted in broad strokes, saying that regulation would stifle innovation and cripple already overcrowded networks. They're not speculating on what they'd have to do if open wireless Internet was suddenly required by the government.

But there are clues. Two years ago, a debate over wireless net neutrality sparked up when Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, made an argument for open wireless networks. Though the wireless industry has exploded since then, it's not hard to look at Wu's recommendations to see what government regulators might be considering.

The biggie is what Wu called the "basic right" for people to "use the applications of their choice and view the content of their choice." Today, the debate would quite obviously focus on VoIP services such as Skype and call management tools such as Google Voice. If wireless providers are shutting down these applications to keep people hooked on traditional cell phone minutes, that's a textbook example of what net neutrality is trying to eliminate.

Wu also brings up the "Carterfone rules" from 1968, which allowed telephone users to plug in any wired phone, regardless of their service provider. Under wireless net neutrality, "locked" phones that bind a user to a particular network could become a thing of the past. Of course, you'd still be bound to whatever radio band the phone is using, and the issues of mandatory service contracts and exclusive deals between carriers and phone manufacturers still remain.

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An overarching point, and one that's directly tied to what Genachowski laid out yesterday, is the issue of disclosure. Today, you can view 3G coverage maps from wireless providers, but carriers could still be more transparent about how much bandwidth you're allotted, what uses are restricted and whether the phone you're buying is locked to one carrier.

I do believe wireless carriers have a valid argument that their networks are finite in capacity, so net neutrality could bring forth new limitations on how much total data consumers can use, even as the possibilities with wireless become less restrictive. But this is all assuming that wireless lobbyists don't succeed in keeping the status quo, and that the FCC favors the rules Genachowski has laid out. We'll see.

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