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Wireless carriers gear up to fight FCC’s net neutrality plans

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The US FCC, headed by new chairman Julius Genachowski, wants to apply the same net neutrality rules to mobile networks as wireline systems, to the fury of the cellcos.

In the most radical neutrality program ever outlined in the US, the new-look FCC is insisting that wireless carriers should account for their open policies in the same way as their wired broadband counterparts.

The proposed policy outlined this week would allow the FCC to monitor cellcos’ policies and rule on how well they conform to guidelines on neutrality. Genachowski also plans to toughen up the rules for the big phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T.

He has reaffirmed the 2005 broadband principles that consumers are entitled to access any legal internet content, and run any apps, from their choice of legal device, and with the right to competition among operators and providers of services, content and applications. These principles will now be formalized by the FCC and extended to mobile broadband.

Genachowski has also added two extra principles. Access providers will be barred from discriminating against particular internet content or apps, and they must be transparent about the network management practices they adopt.

"The rulemaking process will enable the Commission to analyze fully the implications of the principles for mobile network architectures and practices, and how, as a practical matter, they can be fairly and appropriately implemented," Genachowski said in a statement.

However, the plan is short on implementation details, so far at least, and there is sure to be long-winded debate over the fine print, and even legal challenges. "I will propose that the FCC evaluate alleged violations of the non-discrimination principle as they arise, on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that the internet is an extraordinarily complex and dynamic system.”

The CTIA, which represents wireless carriers, is reiterating its line that competition is sufficient to regulate the internet world, while cellcos are predictably trotting out the argument that unfettered internet access could overburden their wireless networks.

"As we have said before, we are concerned about the unintended consequences Internet regulation would have on consumers considering that competition within the industry has spurred innovation, investment and growth for the US economy," said Chris Guttman-McCabe, VP of regulatory affairs for CTIA, in response to Genachowski’s speech.

He continued: "How do the rules apply to the single purpose Amazon Kindle? How does it apply to Google's efforts to cache content to provide a better consumer experience? How about the efforts from Apple and Android, Blackberry and Nokia, Firefly and others to differentiate the products and services they develop for consumers? Should all product and service offerings be the same?"

AT&T and Verizon have both accepted neutrality and open access (sometimes reluctantly) on their wireline networks, but still argue that wireless is a special case because of spectrum limitations. Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior VP of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement: "We are concerned, however, that the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America: wireless services.”

Copyright © 2009, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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