Net Neutrality Battle Spills Into Wireless World

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Bring in the Feds

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski
Enter Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. In a speech to the wireless industry at the CTIA show, he acknowledged that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to regulation, but he reaffirmed his commitment to an open Internet, regardless of how people access it.

Under Genachowski, the FCC has been playing a more active role in the mobile industry's business. When Google Voice was rejected on the iPhone, the feds demanded answers from Apple, AT&T, and Google. Though Apple has said that AT&T wasn't involved with the decision, both companies were forced to admit that they have a deal to block VoIP applications (which Google Voice is not, technically).

The FCC then announced a broader probe into the entire wireless industry that will entail an examination of everything from billing to competition to coverage in rural versus urban areas. The probe marks a major shift from the policies of the George W. Bush administration, which took a hands-off approach in enforcing regulations on the wireless industry.

Things really heated up in September, when Genachowski announced his desire to turn existing network-neutrality principles, plus two new ones, into hard-and-fast rules. He added that the Internet should be open however users reach it, subtly suggesting that the wireless industry would come under scrutiny. Still, at the time Genachowski was vague about what wireless network neutrality would look like.

The FCC is slated to convene next week to vote on the net-neutrality rules that Genachowski has proposed. However, what the rules might mean for wireless carriers is still not clear. Speaking at the CTIA conference, Genachowski acknowledged that congestion issues and the competitive landscape of wireless pose "some difficult questions--questions that remain open and will be considered in the FCC's proceeding." He did make it known, however, that wireless carriers won't escape his vision of an open Internet, which allows consumers to decide how to use their smartphones and 3G cards.

What do wireless carriers want from the FCC? First off, they want the ability to manage their networks as they see fit. "We have to manage the network to make sure that the few cannot crowd out the many," said AT&T's de la Vega at the wireless trade association conference.

Secondly, carriers want the government to free up more wireless spectrum, and the CTIA trade group has formally requested that the government provide it. Spectrum, the array of radio frequencies that mobile Internet uses for transmission, is the all-important factor in determining how much data a carrier can handle at a time. Opening spectrum widens the wireless "pipes," allowing more bandwidth-reliant services to flow through. Even Genachowski has acknowledged that without freeing up more spectrum, a crisis looms. At the CTIA conference, he proposed offloading traffic onto Wi-Fi networks through smart antennas or femtocells. He also discussed reallocating unused or obsolete frequencies, though he said that "there are no easy pickings on the spectrum chart."

Max Hailperin, professor of computer science at Gustavus Adolphus College, says that as both sides continue to push for their interests, the definition of wireless network neutrality will become quite narrow. "The FCC will prohibit a few very narrowly defined, egregious behaviors, such as Comcast was found to have engaged in," he says, referring to how Comcast was caught blocking peer-to-peer file sharers over wired Internet.

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