FCC's Clyburn comes out for strict net neutrality rules for wireless

The roiling debate over net neutrality rules got another jolt Wednesday when two of the FCC's Democratic commissioners pushed for strong net neutrality regulations, and one indicated that strict net neutrality rules should apply to wireless as well as wireline networks. Meanwhile, the CTIA and wireless carriers continued to push back against the notion that the regulations should cover mobile technologies.

Democratic FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn spoke at a hearing in Sacramento, Calif., hosted by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), a strong proponent of net neutrality--the idea that Internet access providers should treat all content the same. The FCC has received 3.7 million comments on its proposed net neutrality rules and expects to craft new regulations by the end of the year.

Wireless networks were largely exempted from the FCC's net neutrality rules in 2010. Wireless carriers have argued that they need more leeway to manage their networks than wireline network operators because of the physics of their wireless networks and because of their limited spectrum resources.

However, those arguments have not appeared to sway Clyburn, who noted that the deployment of LTE was in its infancy in 2010, with 200,000 LTE subscribers, but today there are 120 million.

"The use of Wi-Fi has also increased, and the trends suggest it will continue to do so. Cisco projects that 52 percent of mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2018, and from the consumers' perspective, they often do not know whether they are using cellular data or Wi-Fi, because the transition is seamless," Clyburn said at the hearing. "To me, this means we need to be careful, to avoid creating differing or conflicting standards or rules for Wi-Fi and mobile."

Clyburn added she will be focusing her review of proposed rules "on how different proposals will impact the consumer's experience. What is the impact on a consumer whose mobile broadband may her only access to broadband? If we have lower standards for mobile, will providers make clear that the experience may be different?"

Another aspect of the debate over wireless is whether the FCC will circumscribe "zero-rated" wireless data plans. Such plans ensure that certain kinds of data services do not count against subscribers' data buckets. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) does this, for example, with its "Music Freedom" program, which exempts many streaming music services from counting against subscribers' data usage. T-Mobile's GoSmart prepaid brand also zero-rates access to Facebook (NASDAQ: FB).

T-Mobile spokesman Clint Patterson told the Journal that GoSmart is largely targeted at "younger, lower-income and urban areas," in which people use their phone as their primary Internet connection. "I can say Facebook usage is very high among GoSmart customers, we're definitely seeing the offer resonate with that core customer target," he said. "While this is somewhat unusual in the U.S., it's not unusual on a global scale."

However, Stanford Law Professor Barbara van Schewick said the zero-rated plans let carriers pick winners and losers among apps. "Zero-rating Facebook is a Band-Aid, not a solution. Underserved communities should not have to settle for access to Facebook, if they need--and can get--access to the full Internet," she told the Journal.

CTIA, for its part, is pushing the FCC to free up more spectrum for wireless, seeing that as the way to give carriers the resources they need to maintain a "strong and vibrant mobile ecosystem," Scott Bergmann, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs, wrote in a blog post. "Given the comparative spectrum shortage faced by U.S. operators, wireless providers must be able to manage their networks so that all users have a solid user experience," he wrote.

In a filing with the FCC, Sprint noted that although the wireless market has evolved since 2010, "the fundamental challenges of mobile broadband still exist," including spectrum scarcity, a lack of access for some carriers to low-band spectrum, weather, geography, user mobility, population density and evolving technologies.

"To address these challenges and ensure consumers reap the greatest benefits from mobile broadband services, mobile providers must have the necessary flexibility to manage their networks in ways that maximize consumers' access to the content and applications they desire," Sprint wrote. "Carriers must also have the flexibility to differentiate themselves in the market by offering pricing plans, such as Sprint's unlimited plans, that may require more aggressive network capacity management to sustain."

Similarly, T-Mobile wrote in a filing to the commission that the FCC "should not apply rigid open Internet rules designed for wireline providers to mobile broadband networks that face unique technical issues and capacity constraints, and compete in a very different competitive market."

Meanwhile, at the hearing Rosenworcel came out strongly against paid prioritization, which would allow ISPs to offer faster Internet access for content companies that pay.

Rosenworcel also said she was "pleased" that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is still considering whether to reclassify broadband as a Title II communications service, subject to common-carrier regulations. Net neutrality proponents support such a move, arguing it will give the FCC greater legal authority to set net neutrality rules, but carriers have said such a move would stifle innovation and investment.

For more:
- see this The Hill article
- see this Roll Call article
- see this Multichannel News article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this CTIA blog post
- see this Sprint FCC filing
- see this T-Mobile FCC filing

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