FCC may put mobile under same net-neutrality rules as wired broadband

The past double standard is a big issue in many public comments, FCC Chairman Wheeler said

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is reexamining how it treats wireless net neutrality, in response to public comments on the agency's proposed Open Internet rules.

Under the net neutrality rules the FCC set in 2010, wireless was set apart from wired access and mobile operators were given more leeway to treat some streams of traffic differently from others. But that distinction is a major concern for "tens of thousands" of people who have commented on the agency's new proposal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Tuesday.

An open Internet encourages innovation, which in turn drives network use and infrastructure buildout, Wheeler said. "Mobile wireless broadband is a key component of that virtuous cycle," he said.

The wireless industry's role has changed since 2010, with LTE delivering higher speeds that in some places are comparable to wired services. In 2010, there were only 200,000 LTE subscribers in the U.S., and now there are 120 million, with networks reaching 300 million residents, Wheeler said.

Mobile operators have claimed they don't need the same degree of net neutrality regulation as wired broadband providers because the wireless industry is more competitive. But that logic doesn't necessarily follow, Wheeler said. There was plenty of mobile carrier competition in the era before independent app stores, when carriers approved all apps and put them in so-called "walled gardens," he said.

"At least in the short run, this suggests that competition does not assure openness," Wheeler said.

Carriers should be allowed "reasonable network management" to ensure their networks run properly, but the FCC will hold them strictly to that definition, he said, citing his recent letter to Verizon Wireless that attacked the carrier's plan to throttle speeds for some subscribers with unlimited data plans.

Wheeler also signaled that the FCC will stand by its insistence on a U.S. mobile industry with four major players. The agency fought both AT&T's attempt to buy T-Mobile in 2011 and Sprint's contemplated bid for the same fourth-place carrier earlier this year.

"I know that achieving scale is good economics, and that there is a natural economic incentive to accrue ever-expanding scale," he said. "We will continue to be skeptical of efforts to achieve that scale through the consolidation of major players."

Wheeler also called on all mobile carriers to publicly commit to participating in the FCC's planned incentive auction, in which TV broadcasters will be encouraged to give up some of their spectrum in exchange for part of the auction proceeds. Strong support from the mobile industry will be needed to bring broadcasters to the table, he said. The broadcast incentive auction is critical because it will form the template for other future auctions to reallocate spectrum, Wheeler said.

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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