Wireless must be part of neutrality debate

Net neutrality is one of the most crucial issues facing the future development of the telecoms industry in general. You can tell from the way that the debate has drifted way off course into hysterical conspiracy-theory territory in the US in recent months.

Earlier this year, for example, left-wing blog site ThinkProgress announced it had allegedly uncovered a "secret plan" by telecoms companies in the US to lobby against net neutrality regulations by hiring fake grassroots organizations to promote radical and misleading tactics. (It wasn't.)

Meanwhile, some conservative politicians and pundits are convinced that an FCC-mandated net neutrality policy will result in a Socialist government takeover of the Internet that will target and shut down every web site in America that criticizes President Barack Obama.

Evidently this all started when Representative Marsha Blackburn (a Republican from Tennessee) described net neutrality as "the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet", referring to an old and long-defunct FCC policy for broadcasters. (As someone who worked in broadcasting, I can assure you it's a wildly inaccurate analogy.) So I guess it should be no surprise that net neutrality advocates went ballistic over the news that Google and Verizon had hammered out a framework for net neutrality that they intended to propose to the FCC.

Critics blasted Google for selling out its principles and creating a "signed-sealed-and-delivered policy framework with giant loopholes that blesses the carving up of the Internet for a few deep-pocketed internet companies and carriers", as Free Press described it

In reality, the proposed framework, on paper, is actually not a bad effort at compromise between two long-time opponents in the Net neutrality ring.  In its current form, the framework prohibits discrimination and paid prioritization on the open Internet, but acknowledges the need of network operators to create "fast lanes" separate from the open Internet for heavy-bandwidth services that that need guaranteed bandwidth - and that telcos and ISPs have the right to charge extra for content providers or anyone else who wants to use that pipe rather than the regular Internet. 

Wireless exemption It's hardly perfect, of course. Ovum's chief telecom analyst Jan Dawson notes that the framework exempts "a vague category of 'additional, differentiated services' from most of these rules," as well as wireless networks (except for the transparency provisions), which is so ill-defined that it practically renders the entire framework meaningless. 

"The definition and limits for this category will have to be tightened up considerably before they can be meaningful," Dawson said in a research note. The exemption for wireless broadband services is also a big deal, and one that needs to be revisited.

The reasons that Google and Verizon gave for exempting it - namely, that cellcos face different traffic management challenges and bandwidth constraints than wireline, as well as more competition - are valid concerns. The Google-Verizon framework recommends revisiting the state of mobile internet services once a year for Congress' consideration.

But exempting wireless even temporarily seems like a bad idea, especially when considering just how big mobile internet access has already become. In a growing number of markets, mobile broadband connections already outnumber fixed-broadband connections.

By the end of 2015, according to an Ovum report in August, mobile broadband will outstrip fixed networks by more than three times. The report projects 3.2 billion mobile broadband subscriptions globally, compared to just 785 million fixed broadband subscriptions. That's a huge chunk of internet connectivity to exempt from net neutrality policies.

Granted, most of that will be happening outside the US where the Google-Verizon proposal would apply. But regulators and governments in Asia looking to the US FCC for a lead in neutrality should recognize that wireless must be part of the debate now, not later. The FCC should do the same.