FCC: Apply the Same Rules to Wired and Wireless Networks

This is the third in a series of posts by Chris Riley, Free Press Policy Counsel, to summarize the primary policy recommendations made in recent comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission in its open Internet proceeding. Today’s topic: wireless networks.

I began this series discussing nondiscrimination and reasonable network management, which lie at the heart of the FCC’s open Internet proceeding. In both of these posts, I referred generally to “networks,” and I didn’t mention cable, DSL, FiOS or wireless. This was intentional – there should be no distinctions in open Internet policies based on the access technology, and in our FCC filing, we argue that no Internet access service provider should be treated differently from any other.

With all Internet access services, a consistent, clear, reasonable network management framework will permit any legitimate practices by network operators to deal with congestion and other network problems that may arise.

In our comments, we call for the FCC to recognize that there is only one Internet, regardless of the technology used in the last mile, be it cable, DSL, fiber or wireless. Each Internet access service provider is a gateway to the same Internet, and commerce and speech flow from one technology to another. Consumers don’t distinguish between access provided via Internet devices, applications and network technologies. The same pro-consumer rules must apply, regardless of the technology used in the last mile of the connection.

Long gone are the days when Internet users were chained to a fixed desktop computer that could only be used with one network connection. Laptops are widespread and rapidly replacing desktop computers for a generation of technology users. Many of these laptops can readily switch from an Ethernet cable to a WiFi network to a 3G wireless connection. Many popular phones have both WiFi and cellular radios, and can run the same applications and access the same content as laptops. And netbooks, tablet PCs and the newest generation of smartphones like the iPhone and the Nexus One blur the lines further. From the Internet user’s vantage point, there are no longer categories of fixed and mobile devices, just devices.

Similarly, in the not-too-distant future, 4G wireless networks may well be an effective substitute for many forms of wired connections, such as DSL lines. As with devices, eventually the lines between mobile and fixed Internet access services will blur. (In fact, wireless carriers often argue that even current generation 3G networks are substitutes for fixed connections.) Internet users eventually may not distinguish between wired and wireless networks, either in devices or their expectations for performance and access to content and applications.

Future-proof rules

Open Internet rules adopted in this proceeding must be future-proof, and thus must not distinguish between wireless and wired networks. Failure by the FCC to apply open Internet rules to wireless networks would permit great harm to wireless consumers, and skew innovation and competition in the broadband services market for years to come.

Admittedly, many modern wireless networks do not work as well as wireline networks, though many of the limitations are the result of bad business decisions and a poor market, rather than something specific to wireless [http://www.freepress.net/node/76177]. But the solution to these problems isn’t to allow wireless companies to engage in anti-consumer and anticompetitive behavior. The solution is to encourage investment and competition through good public policy. It’s to encourage wireless providers to build more towers with better backhaul connections and to lower prices for consumers. And rather than being harmful to this goal, open Internet rules actually promote competition – they will encourage investment and consumer-driven behavior in the wireless market, just as they do in the wired market.

Also, when facing temporary problems with congestion and other resource limitations that cannot be addressed through investment, wireless network operators have the same opportunities as wired network operators – the freedom to engage in reasonable network management to address public interest problems using proportional means. In my proposal from my last post, I said that network controls should be proportional in the context of the network and the stated purpose. A “proportional” test can accommodate any limitations, including those that arise from spectrum or other problems inherent to the wireless industry, as well as problems that are shared by all Internet access service providers. DSL is not like cable, and cable is not like fiber, and these technologies also have unique characteristics and limitations – wireless is not magically different. Whether for wireless or cable or DSL or fiber, case-by-case processes for evaluation allow plenty of room for the network operator to demonstrate limitations that justify additional network controls.

Freeing wireless devices

Our comments also address another major issue for wireless raised by the FCC: devices. In 1968, the FCC broke open AT&T’s closed phone network in its landmark Carterfone proceeding. The result was a flood of innovation in phones and phone add-ons, and a wealth of economic and consumer benefits. Here, the FCC has essentially proposed extending the ideas of Carterfone to wireless: Let consumers connect any phone or any device that works to the network, to use the service they are paying for with the device of their choice. We strongly support the right of Internet users to attach any device of their choosing to their wireless network. You can use a Dell or Apple laptop with your cable modem; why should your wireless carrier be allowed to prevent you from using the Samsung, Motorola or Blackberry of your choice?

Sure, there are technical limitations that must be dealt with. Some cell phones use GSM radio technology; others use CDMA, and only a few can use both. But if a device is compatible, and if the FCC certifies the device as non-harmful, the service provider should not stand in the way, and shouldn’t be allowed to impose more limitations. Wireless carriers should not be allowed to refuse device connections, or to impose certification barriers on devices that the FCC has evaluated and declared safe for use. And connection and service use should be allowed whether a user wants to connect through a phone, a laptop or a laptop through a phone using a tethering application.

On all the wireless issues in this proceeding, including nondiscrimination and devices, the role of the wireless service provider should be to provide and maintain the wireless service, not to micromanage the use of that service and artificially control the choice and freedom of users.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good