Mobile Web Use Causes Challenges for Net Neutrality – Roll Call

  • By Anne L. Kim
  • Roll Call Staff
  • Sept. 30, 2014, 3:52 p.m.

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The Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 Open Internet Rules, intended to prevent Internet service providers such as cable and phone companies from blocking or discriminating against content, didn’t cover wireless Internet services, or mobile broadband, to the same extent as fixed broadband.

The prohibition on blocking content was more limited for mobile services, and the ban on unreasonable discrimination against content providers didn’t apply to mobile at all. In rewriting its net neutrality rules after a federal appeals court struck down the bulk of them last January, one of the policy issues before the commission is whether it should re-examine how it treats mobile broadband.

“The basic issue that is raised is whether the old assumptions upon which the 2010 rules were based match the new realities,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at a CTIA-The Wireless Association industry event in September.

The reasoning for the different treatment of fixed and wireless broadband in 2010 included mobile being at an earlier stage of development and quickly evolving, which the FCC decided called for “measured steps.”

The rules noted there was more competition in the mobile sector and operational constraints that made it difficult to apply the broader Open Internet Rules to wireless.

The current proposal by the FCC tentatively suggests maintaining the same framework for how it treats mobile broadband, but notes there have been big changes in the marketplace since then, such as “how mobile providers manage their networks, the increased use of Wi-Fi, and the increased use of mobile devices and applications,” and asks whether the agency should re-examine its treatment of mobile broadband.

Wheeler said in his speech that the issues raised include whether the increase in users of LTE, the most advanced wireless communication standard, makes a difference. LTE had 200,000 subscribers when the 2010 rules were written; there are now 120 million subscribers.

In comments filed with the FCC, groups including Public Knowledge, the Internet Association, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association contend that advances in mobile broadband make the previous distinction between mobile and fixed broadband no longer necessary.

“First, wireless networks have passed out of their infancy,” Public Knowledge wrote in its net neutrality comments earlier this summer. “The costs to society of exempting them from strict open Internet rules can no longer be justified on the grounds that wireless networks are in a fragile, early state of development.”

Proponents of setting the same framework for mobile and fixed broadband also point to the role of mobile broadband for poor and minority communities in accessing the Internet.

Latinos are behind on adopting fixed broadband connections at home, and at the same time are more likely to access the Internet exclusively through mobile, said Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president and general counsel for the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

With large portions of the community accessing the Internet through mobile, it’s necessary the agency avoids creating “second-class digital citizens” by enforcing the same net neutrality rules for mobile and fixed broadband providers, she said.

And consumers are increasingly engaging in “wireless offloading,” where cellphone users connected, for example, through Verizon’s 4G network will switch to Wi-Fi in locations where that’s available, said Sarah Morris, senior policy counsel at the New America Foundations’ Open Technology Institute.

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