A month ago, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission began a proceeding to create formal net neutrality rules for broadband providers, and the proposals have generated serious debate in the telecom community.
Several broadband providers and right-leaning think tanks have vigorously protested the need for any net neutrality rules, saying there's little evidence of a problem that needs to be solved with government regulation. But perhaps the biggest change from the FCC's informal enforcement of net neutrality principles since 2005 is the agency's proposal to extend the rules to mobile broadband services.
Until now, the FCC has focused its net neutrality principles on wired carriers. But consumer groups and other pro-net neutrality advocates say the consumer expectations are no different on mobile broadband networks.
"Whether you're connecting to the network through a wire or wireless airwaves, it shouldn't be any different," said Chris Riley, policy counsel for Free Press, a media reform and pro-net neutrality group. "It's not really good for consumers to get used to using some applications when they're on their computer at home, then they take their computer, put in their ... wireless networking card, and applications don't work anymore."
Mobile broadband providers, even as some of their parent companies oppose net neutrality for wired carriers, say the rules will be more difficult to apply on wireless networks, where providers need the flexibility to manage their networks and guard against congestion.
"A single strand of fiber represents more capacity than you can ever hope to get out of the entire 5 gigahertz of usable spectrum in any given air-space," said George Ou, policy director for Digital Society, a free market, tech-focused think tank. "The fact that we've constrained commercial wireless networks for phone and data to a few hundred megahertz makes the problem even worse."
Mobile broadband can handle normal Web browsing well, with people using bandwidth only a small percentage of the time they are on a Web page, Ou said. But peer-to-peer (P2P) or video streaming technologies use bandwidth continuously, making it difficult for mobile broadband providers to support multiple users, he added.
"We can't have three P2P users hogging all of the spectrum, especially when they have the ability to open up hundreds of simultaneous connections, which allows them to hog bandwidth," Ou added. "Wireless technology not only has a bandwidth limitation, but it also has a packet-per-second limit that gets pushed to the limits with just a few P2P connections. To strike down existing terms-of-service restrictions on wireless networks against heavy bandwidth and heavy-duty cycle applications is not practical on a technical level."
In addition, the mobile industry is competitive, with more than 600 handsets and nine operating systems on the market, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers. The arguments that net neutrality rules are needed because there's a lack of competition among broadband providers doesn't apply in the mobile market, CTIA said.
"The ecosystem is changing so rapidly, how do these rules make sense?" Guttman-McCabe said. "What is not working in this space?"
The FCC should be extra careful when attempting to apply net neutrality rules to mobile providers because of limited bandwidth, critics said. While the FCC proposal would allow for "reasonable" network management, it doesn't define what's reasonable. The FCC is seeking comments on reasonable network management and several other questions posed in a notice of proposed rulemaking, released in late October.
The proposed rules would require broadband providers to allow customers to access the legal Web content and attach the legal devices of their choosing to the network. Those two proposals have been part of the FCC's informal net neutrality principles in place since 2005, but the FCC would add another rule requiring broadband providers to treat "lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner."
What a "nondiscriminatory manner" means hasn't been worked out yet, but that, combined with the possibility that mobile broadband providers would have to allow bandwidth-hogging applications such as peer-to-peer software, has mobile industry representatives worried.
"The challenge of extending a one-size-fits-all set of principles to such a diversity of [broadband] distribution platforms really begs the question of, what are going to be the unintended consequences?" said Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, a group focused on advocating for wireless innovations on behalf of AT&T and other groups. "What might work on a landline, might not work ... for wireless networks."
Instead of creating net neutrality rules, the FCC should focus instead on a looming wireless spectrum shortage, Spalter said. A handful of recent studies have suggested a large shortage of wireless spectrum in the U.S. in the next four to six years, as more and more consumers turn to mobile broadband. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski promised to address the need for spectrum at a CTIA conference in early October.
While more spectrum could ease concerns about net neutrality regulations -- with more bandwidth leading to less network congestion concerns -- the FCC seems to be working on the wrong issue first, Spalter said.
"If we all agree that there's an impending crisis in terms of spectrum, then let's get going in fixing that problem," he said. "Let's fix that problem first and foremost."
The net neutrality rules could divert attention from the spectrum shortage issue, and it could "make the potential crisis worse," he added.
The FCC notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) doesn't include hard and fast rules about how mobile broadband net neutrality would be implemented.
Instead, the notice said that net neutrality rules should "apply to all platforms for broadband Internet access, including mobile wireless broadband, while recognizing that different access platforms involve significantly different technologies, market structures, patterns of consumer usage, and regulatory history."
Creating net neutrality rules for mobile broadband "raises challenging questions," including how to allow all devices to attach to the network and how to allow all content, applications and services to run on the network while giving providers access to reasonable network management, the notice said. Mobile networks have to deal with significant issues, including radio interference and signal loss, the notice said.
Network congestion concerns are real, said Henry "Buddy" Kilpatrick Jr., managing director of Econpolicy, a tech and energy policy consultancy. But Kilpatrick still believes net neutrality rules should apply to mobile providers. Instead of blocking or slowing some Web traffic or applications, mobile broadband providers should begin to charge heavy users extra fees, he said.
"There should be a move towards the principle of the more you use, the more you pay," he said.
A growing amount of Internet traffic will be traveling over both wired and wireless facilities in the course of getting from Point A to B, and it makes no sense to have two different sets of rules, Kilpatrick added.
"The public owns the airwaves, not the carriers," he said in an e-mail. "Requiring part of the system to adhere to net neutrality and allowing another part to avoid these rules would allow some carriers to game the system, but put others (most likely small competitors) at a disadvantage."