AT&T defends Verizon-Google mobile exemption from net neutrality

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AT&T has jumped into the fray on net neutrality, pointing out that mobile networks are fundamentally different from broadband and saying they should be largely free of any regulation as an internet service rather than being classified as a telecom service under the oversight of the FCC.

Talking sides in net neutrality

Advocates of net neutrality are concerned that the relatively limited competition among major service providers (often a duopoly in many markets) will result in unfairly prioritized, limited or censored services and exclusive hardware deals and device restrictions that hurt consumers and free markets. They want regulation in place that prevents providers from discriminating against certain applications, content and devices in order to keep the Internet open to new and innovative products and business models.

Critics of net neutrality claim the government can't adequate regulate network services, and may impose rules that do more harm than good. They also assert that companies can regulate themselves. Major providers, including AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have long railed against any new rules imposing net neutrality principles, and have been supported by business-friendly conservatives who support deregulation.

In between consumers and service providers, companies like Apple and Google have more moderate positions on net neutrality. Both sell their products or services directly to consumers and benefit from open networks. However, both also partner with the service providers to bring their products to market. That arrangement compels Apple, for example, to enforce whatever rules and limitations its carrier partners choose to invoke over users.

Google changing sides in net neutrality

While Apple has remained largely silent on the issue of net neutrality, Google has taken a strong advocacy position promoting the concept of open networks that do not impose restrictions on the type of content carried, the type of devices that can be used on them, and the sources and destinations of the content.

However, Google and Verizon recently worked together to craft a proposal to the FCC that forwards the cause of net neutrality on wired broadband networks while largely exempting wireless providers from any oversight. That has resulted in a maelstrom of new complaints against Google, asserting that the company's new position is grossly hypocritical because it is intended to create a distraction of progress while pinching off net neutrality on mobile networks, the future of the Internet.

The reason for Google's change of heart on net neutrality on mobile networks, critics say, is wholly related to its new position as a mobile platform vendor with Android, which has its fortunes currently tied to Verizon's mobile network. Google says that progress on broadband net neutrality is too important to imperil on an insistence that mobile networks be similarly put under the same level of oversight by regulators.

Apple directly benefits from net neutrality, as it can prevent the company and its minority Mac OS X and iOS platforms from being locked out of network access, keeps access open to its iTunes media and software services and its cloud streaming solutions, and allows the company to innovate with services such as rich email and FaceTime video calling, both of which directly threaten the mobile network's own "pay per message and call minutes" business models.

Without net neutrality regulations in place, AT&T could theoretically block such new services such as VoIP and tethering on its mobile networks; it is has already worked to do this on the iPhone to make its mobile traffic more manageable, relenting only as Apple pushed the carrier to support the features. A smaller partner with less clout wouldn't be likely to win such concessions from major carriers.

Unlike Apple, Google doesn't sell mobile devices (following the aborted failure of the Nexus One); it sells ads on mobile devices. That makes Google more sensitive to the demands of mobile providers and their efforts to scuttle any popular political efforts to keep networks free and open through legal regulation. And while Google benefits from openness on broadband networks, it could actually benefit from potential deals with Verizon to either prioritize traffic to Android devices or block or handicap services to rival mobile platforms.

AT&T on mobile net neutrality

As a service provider, AT&T can't be expected to embrace net neutrality regulation, but its stated position on the matter does explain why it, and by extension Verizon and Google, are working to exempt mobile networks from any new regulation that might come into effect.

In an official public policy blog posting by AT&T Vice President of Federal Regulatory Joan Marsh, the company outlines that wireless networks are inherently different than wired networks because of the bandwidth limitations of the radio spectrum.

Unlike fiber optic cables, which can easily carry 25 million Mbps, AT&T notes that "the theoretical top speed of a LTE carrier is 100 Mbps." AT&T's current UMTS 3G mobile networks only support a theoretical maximum of 7.2 Mbps down and 5.8 Mbps up, but even after paying billions to roll out next generation HSPA+ and LTE networks over the next few years, the maximum capacity of wireless networks will be a tiny fraction of the capacity available when customers have access to a wired broadband connection.

At the same time, AT&T says that wireless demand is projected to increase exponentially, not only with the rapid growth of smartphones, but also in units of other wireless devices, which are expected to balloon from 8 million in 2008 to 86 million by 2014. The company says it expects wireless carriers' traffic to expand from last years' 90,000 terabytes per month to 3.6 million terabytes by 2014.

"We are constantly striving to increase the efficiency of our spectrum resources," Marsh wrote, "but the amount of available spectrum in any given market is finite. And while we regularly split cell sectors and add additional cell towers, there are very real limits placed on cell site construction by zoning and local approval boards."

AT&T's recommendations on net neutrality

To meet the needs of tremendous growth, the company say it is "doing its part" by investing billions into network upgrades and new technologies, building out "complementary network infrastructure" using WiFi hotspots and microcells, and adding capacity to backhaul its existing facilities.

AT&T recommends that policymakers reallocate more spectrum for Commercial Mobile Radio Service and "even more importantly" act to "protect wireless broadband networks from onerous new net neutrality regulations."

Marsh writes that "wireless carriers must to be able to dynamically manage traffic and operate their networks in an environment free from burdensome, arbitrary and unnecessary regulations."

"But perhaps what might help most of all," Marsh concludes, "is for agreement to be reached on net neutrality so we can finally satisfy concerns and put that issue behind us. Then we could focus all our attention on a more urgent matter struggling for oxygen right now, and that’s the National Broadband Plan."

Net neutrality proponents recommend new policy

"The FCC cannot carry out the National Broadband Plan or protect Internet users unless it restores its authority to regulate broadband," wrote S. Derek Turner, the research director at Free Press, cited in an article by PCMag on the issue.

"The authority of the FCC to act on its national broadband plan or net neutrality was called into question earlier this year when a court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to hand down a 2008 network management enforcement action against Comcast," the article explained. "The FCC has since proposed a 'third way' to regulate broadband, and consumer group Free Press on Friday urged the commission to move ahead with that plan."

"America has already lost too much waiting for the agency to formulate a national broadband policy," Turner added. "And it would be irresponsible to delay further simply because industry wishes for the FCC to have no authority over broadband communications."

The Open Internet Coalition (which includes Google as a member) has endorsed the FCC's current plan to re-classify broadband as a telecom service rather than an information service, allowing it the power to, as the OIC is urging, "act quickly to establish a common-sense, predictable framework that ensures that the connections to the Internet remain open and free from discriminatory or anticompetitive practices."

The CTIA, which represents the interests of carriers including AT&T and Verizon, opposes the change.