Net neutrality fight begins

Not unexpectedly,  FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski this week issued a call for an "open Internet," and wireless networks are not immune. Most wireless operator executives aren't happy.

The chairman has proposed to make it a formal rule that broadband operators--both wired and wireless--can't discriminate against certain types of traffic by degrading service or blocking certain applications, like VoIP. He has a majority already as the FCC's two Democratic commissioners--Michael Copps and Mignon L. Clyburn--who say they support the measure.

Big providers like Verizon and AT&T don't have a problem with net neutrality being applied on wired networks but they do on the wireless side because spectrum is a finite resource. AT&T has already acknowledged it is struggling to keep up with the data traffic on its network, thanks in most part to the popularity of the iPhone, which is the reason why it delayed offering MMS on the device and has indefinitely delayed tethering. In May, AT&T defended a network policy that prompted content placeshifting technology developer Sling Media to remove 3G access from the iPhone edition of its SlingPlayer Mobile video application, with the operator arguing the app would consume too much network capacity.

What is not all that surprising is the fact that Sprint and Clearwire, which is 51-percent owned by Sprint, seemingly support Genechowski's plan.

"Put simply, Sprint wants customers to be able access the applications and the Internet sites they want, when they want to," Sprint said in a statement. (Click here for Sprint's full statement.) Echoed Clearwire: "Clearwire's 4G WiMAX technology, business model and operations embody openness for access, applications and devices. Clearwire looks forward to working with the chairman and the commissioners on this proceeding," said Mike Sievert, chief commercial officer for Clearwire. (Click here for Clearwire's full statement.)

Their support comes because Clearwire owns a vast amount of spectrum. Clearwire, together with Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum holds more than 120 MHz of spectrum. Clearwire executives have bragged on many occasions that this amount of spectrum enables download speeds of 6 to 15 mbps per user, and that those kinds of speed and capacity enable the operator to move into services such as wireless HDTV.

Still, it's unclear exactly what an "open" wireless network would look like. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), though, promises stifled innovation and crippled networks if such regulations pass.

Will the FCC take into account the fact that wireless networks are a finite resource and aren't really engineered as true broadband networks until LTE comes along? Perhaps regulations will only apply to LTE, WiMAX and any other all-IP wireless mobile network.

But the results of the 700 MHz spectrum auction could stand as a major wrench in the net neutrality push. In that auction there were five spectrum "blocks" up for bid. One of those blocks (the C Block) carried open-access provisions that closely aligned with the FCC's net neutrality stipulations. Only two companies--Google and Verizon Wireless--bid for C-Block spectrum, and it eventually sold for far less than similar spectrum that did not carry the open-access provisions. Now that the FCC is considering imposing net neutrality to all networks--both wireline and wireless--700 MHz bidders, of course, don't believe that's fair.

It should be a long and interesting battle.--Lynnette