Wireless Net Neutrality: More (Red) Flags, More Fun

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Industry observers who say that the most interesting fight over net neutrality-the limits to which carriers are allowed to control the data flowing through their networks-will be on the wireless side have it exactly right.


The first point is that wireless is hotter than wired. Certainly, the folks on the wired side are not slouches. There are abuses in the amount of bandwidth used by some that must be addressed. There also is the possibility of abuse by network providers. The debate is a good one. But the same basic issues will be telescoped on the far less mature wireless side. In this area, the advent of powerful devices and capacity-laden networks is far more recent. The rules of the road are fuzzier, innovation is in high gear, and the chances of conflict are greater. Wireless is where the action is.


This dynamic will continue. The explosion of smartphones, application stores and other advances have occurred before the widespread availability of 4G. These platforms-LTE and WiMax-will stimulate even more ambitious applications and services. And these are even more likely to coax carriers closer to the line between hard competition and unfair practices. That is, of course, if the FCC fox isn't guarding the carrier henhouse.


It is somewhat contradictory, however, that despite the great and ongoing explosion in capacity, wireless networks remain capacity-constrained when compared to wired networks. That means that there be more legitimate reasons to use techniques such as deep packet inspection (DPI) to peer into the innards of packets to figure out how they should be treated. Wireless network operators need to know whether a particular packet is part of an e-mail (in which a delay of a second or two is no big deal) or a VoIP stream (in which every millisecond counts). They also need to know if one or a small group of users is unfairly dominating capacity.


Once the packet is identified, anyone would be shocked (shocked!) if the network operator would treat it a bit differently depending on whether the service provider trafficking it is corporate friend or foe-or another arm of the carrier itself.


The inclusion of wireless in net neutrality is a complex issue. It is so tricky, in fact, that the carriers are reacting a bit differently. Saul Hansell at the New York Times points out that AT&T issued a statement largely backing wired net neutrality but condemning the wireless version of the idea. Sprint and Verizon didn't even mention the wireless element in statements on the FCC's announcement of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.


The bottom line is that the FCC has taken a definitive stance. The process will provide much needed definition-and more than a few directives-that will lead to a more solid framework for this quickly evolving market.