FCC to focus on whether wireless should be treated like wireline on net neutrality

As the FCC continues to receive a flood of comments on its net neutrality proposal, one aspect that will likely get more attention than it did in 2010 is whether wireless networks should be put on equal footing with wired ones.

"It'll be a topic that will have big resonance among the commissioners: why should wireless be treated differently than wireline in terms of net neutrality," one senior FCC official, who spoke anonymously, told Reuters. The FCC is collecting public comments on its proposed rules until Sept. 10.

The FCC voted in mid-May to approve draft net neutrality rules that would re-examine whether to treat wireless networks differently from wired broadband networks as part of a proposal to ensure consumers get equal access to all Internet content.

As when the FCC last tried to adopt net neutrality rules in 2010, wireless carriers would face a transparency rule that would require them to disclose if they are treating traffic differently on their networks. The newly proposed rules would enhance the transparency requirements and would, as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, require that networks disclose any practices that could change a consumer's or content provider's relationship with the network.

In 2010, fixed and wireless carriers were banned from blocking users' access to legal websites, with exceptions for "reasonable network management." However, wireline ISPs also could not engage in so-called "unreasonable discrimination" against legal web traffic, bur wireless carriers were only barred from blocking applications that competed with their own voice or video calling services.

Under the new proposed rules, the FCC would adopt a "no-blocking" rule that prohibits broadband providers from depriving content providers of "a minimal level of access to the broadband provider's subscribers." Perhaps most controversially, for content not prohibited by the "no-blocking rule," the proposed rules would require broadband providers to adhere to a still-to-be-defined standard of "commercially reasonable" practices. The proposed rules seek comment on whether "paid prioritization" agreements that would allow content providers to pay ISPs for faster access should be banned altogether. Nothing in the proposal, Wheeler has said, authorizes paid prioritization. He also has said that the "speed and quality of the connections the consumer purchases must be unaffected by the content he is or she is using."

The CTIA has long argued that wireless networks are "inherently" different from wired broadband because spectrum is a limited resource and wireless networks need more finely tuned network management than wired ones do.

"The FCC already acknowledged the unique nature of wireless, specifically the technical and operational challenges our industry faces, including the need to ... actively manage networks to provide high quality service to a customer base that is constantly on the go," CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker, herself a former FCC commissioner, told Reuters.

However, that view is being challenged by technology companies as well as longtime net neutrality supports in the public interest and consumer advocacy communities. "The distinction between wireless and wireline is certainly not the same as it was... The enforceable net neutrality rules should apply equally, whether you use the Internet on your mobile or home broadband," said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, which represents three dozen web companies including Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX). "There will be differences in terms of network management, but at the end of the day, the same fundamental principles...need to apply to the mobile world."

For more:
- see this Reuters article

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