Wireless Networks are Different Because Special Interest Lobbyists Say So

The fight for Net Neutrality has turned into a lesson in Washington, D.C. sausage making. In the latest round, the usual special interest groups – led by lobbyists from AT&T, Verizon and their pet trade association CTIA – are pouring all their energy into arguments that wireless networks cannot be subject to Net Neutrality rules because of purported technical obstacles. They are gaining traction, not through any merit in the substance of their arguments, but because Washington is a deal-making town, in which the right answers sometimes take a back seat to parochial private sector demands. This push for wireless exclusion is a mask thinly veiling an offer to make a deal: Effectively, AT&T and Verizon are offering to soften their opposition to nondiscrimination rules for wired Internet access via cable, DSL and fiber, in exchange for a blanket exclusion for wireless broadband services.

We can’t allow delusional technical arguments to make wireless Internet access services the victim of slice-and-dice policy with special interests. There is only one Internet, regardless of the technology used to access it. Commerce and speech flow from cable to fiber to DSL to wireless. Consumer choice and innovation need to be protected everywhere, and Internet citizens should have the same freedoms, whether they’re at home or on a train or on a park bench, and whether they’re using a desktop or a tablet or a smartphone.

Net Neutrality Is Technologically Feasible On All Networks, By Design

Wireless exclusion to Net Neutrality isn’t a new idea, though the arguments have changed over time. Once, the emphasis was on greater competition – but the Federal Communications Commission has identified growing concentration and a range of other problems with competition in the wireless market. So now the emphasis is on “technical” limitations. Somehow, because wireless networks use spectrum instead of wires, providers of wireless broadband services “literally can’t” comply with nondiscrimination rules, according to CTIA president Steve Largent as he was quoted in Communications Daily on August 18th, 2010. According to AT&T’s Joan Marsh, there is a “genuine lack of understanding about the limits technology and physics impose on wireless networks.” Both CTIA and AT&T are attacking a strawman – the idea that Net Neutrality would prevent network operators from managing their networks effectively.

Let’s recap the policy proposal on the table here, shall we? Proponents of Net Neutrality are calling for rules against discrimination, and are offering an exception to those rules for reasonable network management. So, if a network operator’s activity isn’t discriminatory, the rules would allow it. Even if a network operator is engaging in active discrimination, that activity would be permitted so long as it serves a valid purpose (such as congestion control, network security, or public safety) and uses a suitably focused and reasonable means for achieving that purpose. By definition, nondiscriminatory or otherwise reasonable network management is allowed. The wireless providers are therefore fighting back to defend their imaginary right to engage in discriminatory and unreasonable network management.

Are there technical differences between wireless networks and wired networks? Yes. Multiple elements of wireless network technology limit the overall capacity that can be achieved relative to more expandable and future-proof wired connections. However, there are also substantial technical differences between rural DSL lines feeding into expensive backhaul, and urban fiber or DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem connections. Do these differences require wireless network operators to engage in discriminatory and unreasonable behavior? Absolutely not.

The framework of nondiscrimination with an exception for reasonable network management preserves the benefits of the open Internet while accommodating circumstance and/or network-specific limitations, including constraints introduced by spectrum or backhaul or other limitations. (In fact, some wireless networks are less capacity constrained than some DSL networks because of loop length and middle-mile issues.) The current standard for Net Neutrality policy – H.R. 3458, introduced by Reps. Markey and Eshoo in 2009 – would explicitly require the FCC to “consider, among other factors, the particular network architecture or technology limitations of the provider.” With such safeguards, there can be no rational basis for any opponent to assert that wireless Net Neutrality is technologically infeasible – if any particular behavior by network operators is required to keep the network functional, the framework is designed to allow that behavior.

The Open Wireless Internet is in Jeopardy Because of Compromises with Special Interests

So, why is wireless Net Neutrality on the chopping block? Because CTIA has an enormous budget to pay hordes of lobbyists to fight for the special interests of the wireless industry, and because AT&T and Verizon sustain EBITDA margins exceeding 40%, year after year, and are turning their profits into more lobbying rather than more investment, as we’ve demonstrated time and time again. The real reason wireless Net Neutrality is in jeopardy has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with inside-the-Beltway special interest compromises.

Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T have yet to deploy consumer 4G wireless services. They are hoping to buy some time with their lobbying muscle so they can deploy 4G networks with unreasonable discrimination built into the heart of their network management. Therein lies the danger of leaving wireless behind in Net Neutrality: If wireless networks are exempted from nondiscrimination rules, the chances of ever gaining wireless Net Neutrality will only decrease over time, as more investment in wireless networks is spent on discriminatory technology. When the harms of this approach become widely apparent, Net Neutrality advocates will be fighting an uphill battle against even more well-funded lobbyists and the sunken costs associated with the technology. Wireless carriers will threaten to cut investment and jobs even more than they do today, and the political lift for Congress or the FCC to demand that wireless systems be changed will be even greater. Postponing wireless Net Neutrality is risky, to say the least.

If the wireless industry’s motivation here is truly technical, then they should not have a problem with taking economic discrimination off the table. Wireless network operators should have no objection to rules that prevent them from blocking or slowing down Bing because Google paid them to do so – such rules couldn’t have any technical impact, after all. But they’re not offering that, or anything else. Largent of CTIA doesn’t think there is any possibility of a compromise short of a full wireless exclusion. For the wireless industry, this is about maintaining a closed ecosystem, in which they can monetize and control everything and dictate the pace of innovation and competition.

If wireless is excluded from Net Neutrality rules, the real reason for it would not be spectrum, or congestion or competition. It would be because of political compromise and deal making with well-funded special interest groups who want to control the Internet. And the consequences would be devastating for the future of consumer choice and innovation online.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good