Wireless Industry Hosts Net Neutrality Debate

Published December 28, 2009

A debate hosted by CTIA-The Wireless Association recently brought together both sides of the ongoing net neutrality controversy, featuring a CTIA executive debating a high-profile supporter of the Federal Communications Commission proposal to strictly enforce that policy on wireless networks.

In a Washington, DC debate on December 15, CTIA vice president of regulatory affairs Chris Guttman-McCabe took on Gigi Sohn, president and cofounder of Public Knowledge, one of the leading public policy groups advocating for net neutrality.

“The FCC hasn’t made a case for why these rules are necessary,” Guttman-McCabe said. He cited an FTC report finding no harm in the way ISPs manage the on-ramps to the Internet. “I don’t think applying these rules to the wireless space is a simple process. [But] I do believe strongly that there will be harm and that there will be unintended consequences.”

At Issue: Who Decides
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced in the fall of 2009 he was going to call for a vote to allow the commission to enforce net neutrality rules strictly on both wired and wireless Web services.

Although it’s sold as a way to prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from discriminating against some content providers or favoring others, critics of the proposal say it will prevent the technology market from continuing to grow and innovate. They also say the restrictions will give too much power to government bureaucrats, awarding them the power to micromanage an incredibly complex Internet, especially the fast-growing wireless sector.

Sohn conceded companies should be able to throttle back Internet service during times of congestion, but said they shouldn’t be able to provide faster and slower connections to different users.

Guttman-McCabe said “reasonable network management” shouldn’t have to be reactive. A provider should be able to proactively manage the network, not try to do so only after one or more problems arise.

ISP Power Worry
Sohn said the private-sector providers of Web access are abusing their role as “gatekeepers” to the Internet and have to be reined in for the benefit of consumers.

“Unlike top-down media, like broadcast television and cable, the Internet was built to place control in users’ hands, which in turn has led to incredible growth in creativity and innovation and economic welfare,” Sohn said. “Net neutrality rules will preserve an open Internet by prohibiting ISPs from leveraging their control over the onramps to the Internet to determine the winners and the losers.

“If the ISPs decide who will be the next Google or the next Ebay, the public will be the ultimate losers.”

Urge to Regulate
Supporters of net neutrality regulations say the lack of stricter government regulation is one of the reasons the United States has ranked around 15th among industrialized nations in broadband surveys in recent years. Guttman-McCabe, however, argues government regulation is not the way to improve that ranking.

“One of the first things that we do is regulate,” Guttman-McCabe said. “I think that is a backwards approach. If we look at the European Union, they are looking at how they can stir the pot, not at how they can facilitate investment.

“The [net neutrality] rules were written for a wireline network. They don’t transfer very easily to a wireless network,” he added. “The concern is that there is a lot that can go wrong in this space. Currently there is a heck of a lot going right in this space, particularly when you look at the wireless industry … and when you compare the wireless industry in the United States to the wireless industry in other countries.”

Not Same As Wireline
In the debate, Guttman-McCabe noted the comparisons in international wireless broadband surveys are unfair.

The United States has the least-concentrated wireless businesses of the 27 countries CTIA tracks, he said. Even taking into account that AT&T and Verizon serve 65 percent of the wireless market, it’s still less concentrated than 26 other countries, he noted.

In addition, wireless is different from wireline broadband, Guttman-McCabe noted, and net neutrality rules aren’t needed because the competitiveness of the industry has been proven over the last 15 years.

“As much as we’d love to have a flood of spectrum come our way, that isn’t going to happen,” Guttman-McCabe said.

Sohn countered the wireless providers should do more to build out their networks. Guttman-McCabe replied they are already doing so and one part of that buildout is to try to recover some unused spectrum from the government.

Canadian Standard Praised
Sohn recommended the FCC adopt rules similar to those of the Canadian Radio Television Commission Standard, which requires an ISP to show its network practice bears a close relationship to a network management goal, such as relieving congestion.

Sohn also said the FCC shouldn’t attempt to require ISPs to inspect packets in an attempt to find copyrighted material. This is content management, not part of net neutrality, she said.

Guttman-McCabe said both sides strongly agree about the need for disclosure and transparency. He noted both sides of the debate also largely agree on the need to manage networks, and he said Public Knowledge had helped some other consumer advocates understand the business needs for network management.

“If there’s harm to the network, ISPs should be able to deal with that,” Sohn agreed.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.