SAN JOSE, November 7 – Emboldened by their summertime victory against Comcast, advocates of network neutrality said Thursday that the next front in battle for the principle would be against wireless carriers who make “unreasonable” network management decisions.
In a panel discussion on managing wireless networks at the Wireless Communications Association conference here, Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott and Google Telecom Counsel Richard Whitt said that the FCC’s Net neutrality principles would bar discrimination over wireless networks – while conceding that the networks are, for the time being, more bandwidth-constrained than wired-based network.
Wireless networks “are not different,” said Scott. “We made this mistake in the 1996 Telecom Act, and regulated different technologies under different rules, and we are paying the price.”
Wireless networks are only different to the extent that bandwidth constraints might make it harder for the FCC to prove that a particular network-management technology was “unreasonable,” said Scott.
The top lobbyist for AT&T and a vice president of the wireless industry association CTIA appeared to accept the new reality: that their wireless services will be closely scrutinized for signs of Net neutrality violations.
Net neutrality refers the principle that carriers should be barred from blocking or throttling particular applications, from prioritizing or de-prioritizing certain applications (as with Comcast’s restrictions on peer-to-peer file sharing using BitTorrent), or from promising expedited delivery of internet traffic to favored content providers.
“It is fair to say that wireless is different,” said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA.
“We absolutely do prioritize things affected by latency, like voice,” said Guttman-McCabe. Such prioritization on the network – even though it might run afoul of the FCC’s Net neutrality rules if on a wired network – was absolutely required to ensure quality telephone calls for consumers, he said.
AT&T’s “biggest concern is [that] the wireless network is built in a granularly shared network, cell-by-cell,” said Jim Cicconi, senior vice president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T. “You can overwhelm a cell by having too many people in the same cell, [as when] everyone is trying to call home [in traffic] at the same time.”
Throttling wireless movie downloads clearly trumps voice conversations in such an environment, said Cicconi.
“Our customers expect to have a certain level of quality in their usage. It is one of the reasons that we have to prioritize traffic in the cell. We are not trying to balance them for the company's advantage, except insofar as customers will leave us” if they have bad service, he said.
Whitt agreed that such conduct was acceptable “as long as the activities taking place are designed for a completely neutral way of applications or traffic, and they are not tilting one way or the other for competitive advantage.”
“There is some concession to the point that at least for now, maybe only temporarily, there are some limits in terms of what can be done with those networks,” Whitt said.
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