This entry was inspired by Meg, who asked some great questions after I posted my last entry. In that entry, I explained what the net neutrality debate is about and why consumers should care about the FCC’s recent ruling requiring that traditional ISPs cannot discriminate the traffic that they carry over their wires. This is a good thing for consumers (IMHO). Near the end of the post, I also suggested that the ruling didn’t go far enough because it didn’t apply the same rules to wireless providers. I didn’t explain what I meant by that and so Meg asked some great questions. So here’s a further investigation of the FCC ruling, as it applies to wireless providers.
An article from Wired summarizes the three rules that the FCC passed for wired ISPs: 1. They must be “transparent about how they handle network congestion”; cannot block any particular traffic on wired networks, and cannot “unreasonably” discriminate on those networks. This last rule means that the speed of data transmission must be the same regardless of the source of that data. So Time Warner (as an ISP) cannot make your connection slower to Netflix‘s online video service than the connection to Time Warner‘s own online video service (if they had one).
Despite these consumer protections, the ruling is being thrashed because it does not apply these rules to wireless providers of Internet access. What does that mean? It means that if you access the Internet on your phone, your phone company can charge you different rates to access different sites. If Facebook is particularly popular, for example, your phone company can charge you more to access it than it charges to access MySpace. Or worse, if your phone company creates their own social networking site, they can charge you more to access all competitors’ sites than they do to access the more well-known sites. Or even worse yet, they can prevent you from using their wireless network to access the competitors’ sites at all. This is clearly not in the best interest of consumers. It’s also not in the best interest of innovation since most innovation does not come from the biggest companies and small companies could get squeezed out if no one is able to access their sites.
Right now, these (non)rules concerning wireless providers apply mostly to cell phone companies who provide Internet access. Most other access is wired access. Even when we have wireless networks in our homes and places of work, we have wired access that comes into the building and then we have a local wireless network set up. So the ISP isn’t providing the Internet access wirelessly. And so they would be governed by the stricter rules imposed by the FCC ruling. But that may not always be the case. In the future, more and more ISPs may figure out ways to effectively and efficiently provide wireless access into our homes and businesses. And if that happens, those new networks will be governed by the softer rules. This seems short-sighted to me. And it seems like it happens because the folks on the FCC are not tech people and so don’t really understand what is different and what is the same about different kinds of technology. Let’s hope that changes.