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FCC Ponders Net Neutrality for Mobile Broadband

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 17, 2014 1:51 PM

We've written before about the importance of net neutrality when it comes to the Internet, but with mobile devices being what they are, there are two Internets. One is the one in your house that comes through the cable or phone line. The other is the one that comes to your smart phone via your cell phone company.

The FCC held a roundtable discussion Tuesday about whether net neutrality should apply to "mobile broadband," the Internet connection available over cell phones. There's less need now than ever to treat the two technologies differently. According to The New York Times, there's been a 600-fold increase in mobile broadband usage since 2010, when the FCC promulgated its net neutrality regulations.

That Takes Brass

At a meeting of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) in Las Vegas last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler criticized the wireless industry for pulling a bait-and-switch on consumers. "We are very concerned about the possibility that some customers are being singled out for disparate treatment even though they have paid for the capacity that is being throttled," Wheeler said. "And we are equally concerned that customers may have been led to purchase devices relying on the promise of unlimited usage only to discover, after the device purchase, that they are subject to throttling."

That's strong language for Wheeler, who's been criticized in net neutrality circles for his past as the CEO of CTIA -- the very group he must now regulate as FCC Chairman. It was Wheeler who proposed that the FCC allow a "fast lane"; i.e., to allow ISPs to charge extra for faster access to some content, a violation of net neutrality principles.

Bandwidth Throttling or Net Neutrality

Bandwidth throttling and net neutrality are different, though. It's one thing for a cell phone provider to throttle all content; it's another entirely for a company to selectively throttle certain content. The former is still neutral; the latter isn't.

In 2012, AT&T blocked access to the FaceTime feature of Apple's iPhone when the phone was connecting to a cellular network. A year later, it lifted the restriction -- but only for users on tiered data plans. Those of us lucky enough to have our grandfathered unlimited data plans can't use FaceTime over the cell network. AT&T would argue that the limitation is necessary so that users with unlimited data plans don't unfairly hog the network. The cynics, of course, think it's because AT&T doesn't want its users making phone calls for free.

Right now, nothing prevents AT&T or Verizon from pulling a Comcast and restricting access to a popular site -- say, Netflix -- from a cell network unless the user pays an additional fee. Imposing net neutrality on mobile broadband would stop this sort of rent-seeking behavior.

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