Just what is the definition of the open Internet anyway?

The big draw during last week's CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment show was the keynote from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who extended an olive branch to an industry battered by inquiries of all sorts by acknowledging that the commission needs to act swiftly to help usher in mobile broadband by easing tower siting rules and releasing new spectrum.

But the big question on everyone's mind is how the commission will promote an open Internet through net neutrality regulations. There was no clear answer. Genachowski admitted that questions remain about how to implement the guidelines for wireless given the unique nature of wireless networks.

"There are real and relevant differences between wireless and wired networks," Genachowski said. "Managing wireless networks isn't the same as managing a fiber network. The rules will reflect that difference. We'll analyze the competitiveness of the market ... I believe firmly in Internet openness, whether from desktop or wireless netbook or laptop."

Following the chairman's address, the big guns were out in full force, mounting their attacks. CTIA keynotes featured two AT&T executives, with AT&T Mobility head Ralph de la Vega giving the top 10 reasons why the U.S. mobile market is the most competitive market in the world, and AT&T CTO John Donovan touting that AT&T knows more about wireless data customers than any other carrier in the market. Interestingly, no other operator showed up for a keynote.

Genachowski and the rest of the commission have their work cut out for them. Making the issue more convoluted is the varying definitions people have of the open Internet.

While Genachowski appears to favor hard and fast rules that require operators to support all competing services and devices, operators argue they already embrace the open Internet.

"We believe in and support the open Internet, but we don't need additional regulations," de la Vega said during his keynote.

Does AT&T's definition of the open Internet mean giving smartphone users with browsers and app stores the power to access any content they wish? AT&T last week also lifted its ban on VoIP applications that run over the 3G network on the iPhone. What about open access for device makers? Verizon allows devices to run on its network via a certification process (some still don't think that's open enough).

And things get trickier when you talk about 700 MHz spectrum.

During the 700 MHz spectrum auction last year, AT&T paid extra for spectrum that did not carry open-access stipulations. If the FCC imposes net neutrality regulations, AT&T fears the move would essentially negate the premium AT&T paid by retroactively placing open-access stipulations on AT&T's new network. Verizon was the winner of the C-Block spectrum that has the open-access strings attached, so it is required to allow any suitable device and service to run on its LTE network.

"The rules should not change after bidding is complete," de la Vega said. "These rules should not change now after the money has been spent but before spectrum has been put to use. What does this say about the integrity of the auction?"

I would guess the piece that AT&T has the biggest problem with is allowing any device on the network, rather than services, since it says that it already supports the open Internet and said its customers demand an open Internet. 

De la Vega also noted that just 3 percent of its smartphone users use 40 percent of all smartphone data. He said this small percentage of users consume 13 times the data of the average smartphone user but make up nine-tenths of 1 percent of the operator's total postpaid customer base. Without proper management, these handful of users will crowd out other users. Of course, we don't know what proper management means either, but that is the part Genachowski says he recognizes as a fundamental difference between wireless and wired networks.

Confused? We need a working definition of what the open Internet really is. --Lynnette

P.S. Make sure to check out our full coverage of last week's CTIA show here: CTIALive.

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