Public Knowledge says AT&T MicroCell policy violates net neutrality

AT&T exempts from data caps the traffic going over its own femtocell, but not those of other carriers, the group says

AT&T is violating the spirit of net neutrality with its policies on the use of small cellular base stations in homes, the consumer advocate group Public Knowledge says.

The carrier's policies favor its own small base stations over those of rival mobile operators, an action that goes to the heart of the net neutrality debate, Public Knowledge Vice President Michael Weinberg wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

Many mobile operators, including AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless, offer small base stations called femtocells to customers who want or need better cellular signals in their homes. AT&T calls its device the MicroCell. Unlike traditional base stations, which connect to the Internet over wired or wireless links that the mobile operator arranges and pays for, femtocells use the mobile subscriber's own home broadband.

The problem with AT&T's treatment of femtocells relates to its monthly caps on broadband data use, according to Public Knowledge. For AT&T broadband subscribers who also have AT&T's mobile service and use one of its femtocells, data traveling over the femtocell doesn't count against their monthly cap, Weinberg wrote. For users with cells from other mobile operators, the traffic does count against the cap, he wrote. AT&T declined to comment on the allegations.

Such a policy could give AT&T broadband users who want or need a mobile coverage boost a strong incentive to sign up for AT&T's mobile service as well. Public Knowledge thinks the carrier is unfairly using its control over subscribers' Internet connections.

"When AT&T chooses some data to treat differently, especially under a cap, that's a huge problem," said Weinberg said in an interview on Tuesday.

Weinberg compared the situation to one that led Public Knowledge to file a complaint with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission last year. The group told the agency that cable operator Comcast exempted its Xfinity video service from data caps while keeping video content from other providers under those caps. Comcast has said it can treat Xfinity differently because it travels over Comcast's private Internet Protocol network rather than the Internet.

Public Knowledge hasn't filed a complaint against AT&T, but Weinberg said the FCC should take action soon on such policies. Every time ISPs institute such a policy and regulators don't act, it pushes the edge of how data caps are used, he said.

"What you end up with is a situation where people who have caps are steered toward online sites or services that are either owned by their ISP or have some sort of financial agreement with their ISP," Weinberg said. "New services will be frozen out of that."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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