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A Third Way on the Net Neutrality Debate

Every time I see an article on Net Neutrality, I cringe. Mostly because it’s the same old arguments repeated over and over again. The pro-net neutrality types are concerned that some content will be preferred over others and that you’ll have to pay more money for less choices, less bandwidth, and less content choices as providers will have to “pay” for preferential treatment. There are plenty of pro net-neutrality pieces, including one in USA Today.

The anti-net neutrality types–mobile network operators–say “their network is different.” In order to provide the best quality of service for everyone, they say, they need to have the freedom to manage a scarce resource. Net neutrality rules would prevent that. Again, there are plenty of anti net-neutrality rhetoric out there, including a piece in USA Today written by Steve Largent, President of the CTIA (otherwise known as the lobbying firm for the US mobile network operators).

I agree with both sides. Unlike what the staunch pro-net neutrality advocates say, wireless is actually different. It’s not just a lack of speeds-and-feeds argument, either. The typical mobile phone network offers three very distinct services:

  • Voice (including 911)
  • SMS (short text messages)
  • Data (also includes MMS or Picture messaging)

While you can have calls over the Internet with Skype or what have you, generally speaking people use their landline Internet for other purposes. There’s also a lot more bandwidth to work with, and the calls are all IP-based, so there is, quite frankly, less need to manage it.

In the wireless world, all three uses are effectively vying for use of the same spectrum and backhaul. In addition, you are combining both packet-based and circuit-switched communications, both of which operate fundamentally differently. Data connections can generally tolerate some temporary congestion issues. SMS, which was designed to operate on idle call control signaling paths, can be delayed. In-progress circuit-switched phone calls cannot.

When there is bandwidth contention in a cell site (i.e. more bandwidth is needed than is available), what happens? Does everyone on that cell site suffer? Who’s phone call or data connection will get dropped when a 911 call comes in, which are generally prioritized over other traffic for obvious reasons? Also, how do you handle when a cell site goes from needing lots of voice traffic to needing lots of data traffic and vice versa?

There’s really no easy answer to this question. Perhaps what is needed is a standard set of network management principles for mobile network operators that would be clearly described as part of the service provider’s terms of service. This way, everyone understands what is prioritized in what circumstances.

Regardless of how things are prioritized, though, at any given point, some amount of bandwidth at a cell site will be available for mobile data use. This bandwidth–however much there is–must be treated in a net neutral way. Without question. Wireless operators should not be granted a complete pass on net neutrality, therefore, but the regulations do need to take into account the multi-use nature of wireless networks.

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Parent, Writer, Podcaster, Coffee Achiever, VoIP/Telco Curious, C-List Information Security Celebrity, and Mobile Phone Connoisseur residing in Gig Harbor WA US. Sometimes NSFW, always a 49ers fan.