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?"