Net Neutrality Debate Even Hotter in the Mobile World

Carl Weinschenk

The open access debate has focused on the terms and conditions under which content providers get access to the wired Internet. Less attention has been paid to wireless connectivity.


That issue firmly is on the horizon, however. Indeed, it is a pretty hot topic right now in Canada. Pelmorex Media-which operates two popular sites, The Weather Network and MeteoMedia-made a filing in the network neutrality proceeding before the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission. Ars Technica reports that it contains explosive charges. For instance, it claims some wireless carriers are blocking ads on its mobile sites, charging extra for text messages with advertising, stripping out code designed to make it easier to deliver advertising on mobile sites or simply not allowing ads at all. Still other carriers-no names are provided-are playing games with the data rates provided to content providers. Carriers also have delayed approval of third-party apps, apparently in an effort to give them time to develop competitive versions. Here is a bulleted summary of the charges in the filing.

GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham has an interesting reaction to the Ars Technica piece. She says that wireless net neutrality "may not be as practical as advocates might think." Carrier statements that some form of control is necessary to provide an optimum user experience is not, in her daming-with-faint-praise opinion "always complete BS." Spam blocking, for instance, is a legitimate task that is a form of network control, though it can be used to squelch potentially competitive services and may be an excuse to avoid adding capacity. Wireless scenarios are particularly tricky because of spectrum ownership issues and the difficulty of placing towers. She adds that wireless Net neutrality is a topic that should be more closely examined in the United States.

Elections have consequences, as political bloggers (mostly those on the left these days) like to say. That certainly is the case now in regards to open access. provides a legal review of the broad issues. It mentions wireless only once, but in a very important context. The writer notes that the language in the stimulus package signed into law this month by President Obama contained net neutrality provisions in regard to grants for both wired and wireless platforms in unserved areas. The writer notes that the Federal Communications Commission is charged with defining precisely what open access means. Indeed, the exercise of defining that phrase may go a long way toward determining the fate of wireless net neutrality.

As the debate about open access moves from the wired to the wireless network, the equipment will follow. Deep packet inspection (DPI)-the ability peer into the innards of a packet to divine certain things, such as whether it carries video or e-mail and, therefore, whether it should be allowed to cut the cyber line-usually is mentioned in the context of wired networks. Indeed, DPI is the way in which the policies, whatever they turn out to be, will be executed. Telephony Online reports that Continuous Computing is introducing two suites for wireless DPI. The story doesn't offer too many details, except for the fact that the action will be pushed close to the air interface.

This WirelessWeek commentary arguing against net neutrality specifically discusses the mobile Internet. The writer says that it is a particularly pressing issue in this sector because of the relative scarcity of mobile bandwidth. As a constrained resource, how it is regulated-or not regulated-is more important than in networks in which it is easier to add capacity.


That said, the writer's interpretation is all wrong. He frames the net neutrality debate as the right of carriers to offer tiered services. That's not the core of the debate: The real issue is the carrier's ability to favor one provider-themselves or an allied company-over another. The reality is that since the cable and phone companies control the technology, it is easy for them to do this if they are not carefully managed. In terms of mobility, the writer says that the carriers must have incentive, enabling a wide variety of service types and prices. However, the fast growth of the wireless network suggests that incentive is not in short supply. As on the wired network, letting the carriers control access while they have a horse-or several-in the race will squelch innovation, not add to it.

The bottom line is that the net neutrality/open access issue, which has been a hot topic for years, is about to grow even more intense as wireless networks become the subject of the debate.

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