FCC Chews on the Mobile Net Neutrality Question

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday hosted a roundtable discussion on the possibility of Net neutrality rules being applied to mobile networks. Participants in the talk included representatives from The Center for Media Justice, Consumers Union and CTIA-The Wireless Association, among others. The diverse group voiced a range of nuanced opinions on the subject.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler earlier this year suggested that the 2010 rules, which exempted mobile services from Net neutrality provisions, should be reconsidered based on the new realities of wireless broadband — namely, the growth of LTE networks, and the fact that a huge number of consumers use mobile broadband as a primary access point for the Internet.

It is unclear whether the FCC will move in that direction, but the agency was given much food for thought in Tuesday’s meeting.

In general, the FCC is exploring how to apply Net neutrality principles after an appeals court rejected its 2010 rules this year.

A Different World

One theme stressed in the talks was the different needs and market forces governing mobile broadband compared to the wireline Internet. Capacity in the mobile space is limited both by availability of spectrum, which is regulated by the government, and infrastructure such as cell towers.

Also, wireless networks tend to be more dynamic, said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA. Applying Net neutrality rules to mobile carriers would result in less investment and degradation of the consumer experience.

Mobile carriers do have different operational challenges, acknowledged the Consumer Union’s Delara Derakhshani, but continuing to exempt wireless carriers from the rules would amount to giving carriers carte blanche to hurt consumers.

What Happens Next

Where the FCC will go with this information is unclear. Adding to the uncertainty is the likelihood that wireless carriers will challenge any attempts to regulate them, as Verizon showed when it successfully challenged the 2010 rules.

“The wireless carriers, of course, are vehemently opposed to the Net neutrality principles being applied to their networks, and they are strongly advocating for maintenance of the 2010-style rules that excluded them,” said Ross Buntrock, telecom practice lead at Arent Fox.

“They argue that the reason for the explosion in mobile adoption in the last four years is the fact that there was a light regulatory touch applied,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “but in fact, it has been the wireless carriers that have most frequently run afoul of the principles set forth in the Net neutrality rules.”

Given the consumer trend of embracing the mobile Internet — in some cases to the exclusion of wireline broadband — it only makes sense to have one set of rules, Buntrock continued.

“Companies like Microsoft and Google and others all note that it is a ‘mobile first,’ world where most Americans these days most frequently access the Internet via a mobile device and not the desktop. In fact, everyone in Silicon Valley is developing an app or ecosystem that is designed for mobile.”

That is the direction Chairman Wheeler has indicated he wants to head as well, Buntrock said. “He is an advocate for parity between wireless networks and wireline broadband networks, and application of whatever new Net neutrality rules are promulgated.”

Net Neutrality for All

The FCC wants to develop commercially reasonable practices for wireless providers and impose a “regulatory framework to prevent the harm that other people are worried about,” said Larry Freedman, a partner at Edwards Wildman.

The chief reason mobile wasn’t considered in the 2010 rules was that Net neutrality was still a relatively novel issue then, and the magnitude of the shift for wireline access was enough to occupy people.

“We didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with wireless too,” Freedman told the E-Commerce Times.

Now it is a logical direction to go, he said. “To the extent that there is validity on the core issue of preserving the Internet, then that clearly applies to mobile as well. The medium or means by which the signal is transmitted makes no difference. If you are a blocked, you are blocked.”

The wireless industry won’t be thrilled with a change in the rules, Freedman said. “I don’t know if their arguments against it, such as spectrum limitations, are enough to stop the tide of Net neutrality.”

Erika Morphy has been writing about technology, finance and business issues for more than 20 years. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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