Monday, September 28, 2009

Net Neutrality: Wireless Too?

A week ago today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski started a kerfuffle when he called for net neutrality in wireless as well as wired Internet services. To understand why this has upset a number of Internet service providers, and why they're upset, we need to review a few terms.

"Net neutrality" is the idea that service providers shouldn't discriminate among different uses of the Internet. That is, if I sign up for Internet service with Company A, I should be able to use the Internet to look up recipes for Hungarian goulash, or use voice-over-internet to call my aunt in Poughkeepsie, or legally download "Up" (whenever that becomes possible), and Company A should let me do any or all of these things. Why should Company A care, and especially, why should they care if I'm using an iPhone or other wireless device connected directly to their wireless network?

The short answer is, bandwidth. Bandwidth is to the Internet as pipes are to a water-supply system. You want more water, you need more and bigger pipes, and the same goes for the Internet. And there's a big difference in bandwidth between so-called "wired" service (really it should be called "fibered" since fiber cables carry most of the traffic), and wireless service that goes directly from the user's device to a service provider's cellphone tower or other wireless hub. (If you are using your own little wireless network around your home, as I do, that counts as wired service since it goes to a cable once it leaves your house.)

The bandwidth of wired services is limited only by what physical cables can be put in place between you and the main Internet. In most parts of the country served this way, there is plenty of bandwidth around on cable TV systems (most of which are mostly using fiber-optics anyway for a good part of their links) and especially if you are at a company or institution that has direct fiber connections. So although you may pay more to get a lot of bandwidth, it's out there and there's no particular reason your service provider should be chintzy and keep you from using bandwidth-hog services such as downloading peer-to-peer movies.

But if you try stunts like that on your iPhone, the service providers have a least a technical case in their favor. Unlike wired services, wireless services use limited slices of the airwaves, including some which the government recently auctioned off as a result of the switch to digital TV. The service providers paid billions for these wavelengths, because it was a little like when the Dutch paid the Indians for Manhattan. They aren't making any more Manhattans, so when it came up for sale they were wise to buy, at least from a real-estate perspective. (I won't get into treatment of indigenous peoples here—one ethical problem at a time!) There's only so much spectrum bandwidth out there, and when it fills up, the only way you can squeeze more data through it is to get more clever technology, and even that has a limit called Shannon's information theorem.

So when AT&T and company read about Chairman Genachowski's call for net neutrality even in wireless services, they set up a howl. Genachowski, an Obama appointee who worked closely with the candidate on telecommunications issues, is a Harvard-trained lawyer with experience clerking for Supreme Court justices and working for internet firms. Given his rather rarefied background, he has had at least an opportunity to see what private enterprise is like. But like most government agencies in the executive branch, the FCC is a pseudo-democracy. When they propose rules they allow time for comments and so on, but there is no law requiring the Commission to take comments into account in their rulemaking. So when Genachowski talks, companies listen.

In his speech, which actually does a good job of portraying the current situation in historical perspective, Genachowski cited the long tradition of openness and transparency of the Internet, right down to its technical structure that pushes applications to the edges and makes the main system act pretty much like a "dumb pipe." This is an example of how technical structure can influence behavior. For instance, if there were an easy way to monitor and bill Internet users for each particular use of the Internet over a certain provider, the way the old POTS (plain old telephone service) used to work, things would be vastly different, and arguably not near as far along as they are today. Placing approximately zero marginal cost on transactions encourages greater and more innovative use of a resource than if you knew you were going to be out a quarter for every time you queried Google, for instance. If that were true, I'd be broke a long time ago.

On the other hand, excessive government enforcement of egalitarian principles can lead to problems as well. Take the Cuban health system, for instance. Yes, it's free for all Cuban citizens, but outside of a few friends of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore who took their illnesses to Havana after they ran into problems in the U. S., I'm not aware of too many medical tourists who are drawn to the Cuban health-care system like flies to honey. The present fuss over wireless net neutrality is more likely a pro-forma complaint about something that the service providers were already figuring out how to do. And Genachowski himself allowed as to how in exceptional cases (periods of high demand, etc.) providers might have to restrict access to some services simply to maintain the stability and integrity of their networks. So they have an escape clause, so to speak.

The FCC is going to go ahead and do what it likes, and as in the past, the service providers will find a way to deal with it. Sometimes government regulation can even encourage innovation, as Genachowski appears to hope will be the case here. I hope and trust he's right.

Sources: I used material from an online editorial by Lynette Luna at the website FierceMobileIT, Chairman Genachowski's speech can be read in its entirety at

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