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CTIA and Public Knowledge Debate on Net Neutrality

What was interesting about this debate between the CTIA and Public Knowledge, which took on the subject of net neutrality and how the proposed FCC rules should be modified for mobile network operators, if at all, wasn’t the arguments themselves. It’s the insight I had–insight that CTIA’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Chris Guttman-McCabe hinted at in his arguments, but did not take to their logical conclusion.

The debate was about 90 minutes and could be summed up in a couple of sentences. Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge’s President & Co-founder, basically took the position that while the wireless does have unique challenges, and should be given a little more latitude in terms of applying reasonable network management principles, they should adhere to the same basic guidelines as is being proposed for wireline-based Internet services. Chris Guttman-McCabe suggested that wireless is far more competitive, it’s not clear that net neutrality principles need to be applied to wireless, and that applying the same principles the same way may, in fact, cause unintended harm to both consumers and the industry.

Net neutrality advocates would prefer that service providers, be they wireless, wireline, fiber, or whatever, would prefer that the service provider “just serve bits.” Don’t differentiate, don’t prioritize. Just serve them as they come. Seems reasonable and even supportable.

Remember that a mobile phone has two functions: as a telephone that you can make and receive voice calls on, and as a data device. While people like myself tend to think of a mobile phone primarily as a data device now, the vast majority of the world still views it as a voice device. However, both travel over the same radio spectrum and the same backhaul connection. That “last mile” connection to your mobile handset, however, is constrained by radio spectrum–spectrum which is in both short supply and high demand.

Let’s say a wireless operator experiences network congestion in a particular area, say around Moscone Center in San Francisco during a high-tech trade show even. If you’re been to a high-tech trade show at Moscone Center in San Francisco and tried to use your iPhone (or any other phone) on AT&T while there, you’d see the result–nobody could use the service at all. Taking the pro-net neutrality argument to it’s logical conclusion, where one bit of data is no more important than another, how do you device what bits make it through in a congested environment? Is a traditional call using GSM or CDMA more important than other bits? What if that voice call happens over data (e.g. with Skype)? If an operator prioritized more traditional forms of telephony over the newer, TCP/IP based methods of telephony, would that be a violation of net neutrality principles?

Unlike the other “wired” access methods, where one can upgrade the infrastructure to provide more bandwidth to end users in the last mile, or even lay more cable, mobile network operators cannot do this without more wireless spectrum–spectrum assigned and allocated by the FCC to both government, commercial, consumer, and amateur use. The spectrum allocated by the 700 Mhz spectrum auctions from a couple years back are now assigned to the mobile operators, but the previous “users” of that spectrum have not cleared out yet. Operators are chomping at the bit to start using this spectrum to roll out 4G wireless services.

Given the bandwidth crunch and net neutrality mandates, how is a mobile network operator going to solve congestion issues? What is “reasonable” network management practices? Who decides what is fair? Can anyone point me to a document that describes what constitutes reasonable network management practices?

At the end of the day, I have to side with CTIA. This issue is incredibly complex and needs more discussion, specifically around what constitutes “reasonable network management principles” and how to handle traditional voice calling and SMS in a truly “net neutral” world. What do you think?


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