CTIA: Mobile carriers still need lighter net neutrality rules

The FCC shouldn't hold mobile broadband providers to the same regulations as wired providers, the CTIA chief says

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should not hold mobile carriers to the same net neutrality rules as it does for wired broadband providers because of unique mobile network management challenges, the head of the largest U.S. mobile trade group said.

CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker on Wednesday repeated the trade group's objections to calls by some advocates and members of the public for the FCC to hold mobile carriers to the same rules of wired broadband providers as the agency considers new net neutrality rules.

Members of CTIA support net neutrality principles, but mobile broadband providers have limited spectrum that require "dynamic" network management practices, Baker said at a mobile broadband forum in Washington, D.C., hosted by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

"Any regulations must be governed by flexible policies that are reflective of mobile's extremely competitive market, unrelenting innovation and investment, and be designed for the unique challenges that our networks face -- millisecond by millisecond," Baker said. "Because wireless is different."

Even as large broadband providers Comcast and AT&T have voiced support for some basic net neutrality rules, one of the major disputes in the FCC's ongoing proceeding is over how the rules should treat mobile broadband service. Some U.S. mobile broadband providers boast 4G download speeds peaking at 10Mbps to 12Mbps, matching the speed of some wired broadband services.

Last month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler noted that "tens of thousands" of people who filed comments on the FCC's net neutrality proposal voiced concerns that mobile broadband carriers were subject to lighter net neutrality regulations in the 2010 version of the FCC's net neutrality rules.

Baker, speaking a day after Wheeler at a CTIA convention, fired back, saying some wired broadband carriers were pushing for tougher rules for mobile carriers because of competition concerns.

The FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules, partially thrown out by a U.S. appeals court early this year, barred wired broadband providers -- but not mobile broadband providers -- from "unreasonable discrimination" against Web traffic. Those rules prohibited mobile providers from blocking voice and other applications that compete with their services, but did not prohibit them from blocking other applications.

In comments filed with the FCC last month, the Internet Association, a trade group that counts Google, Facebook, Amazon.com and eBay among its members, called on the agency to "harmonize" the treatment of mobile and wired broadband providers in its net neutrality rules. The Internet Association also called on the agency to keep all its regulatory options open, including reclassifying mobile and wired broadband as a regulated public utility.

While the FCC's 2010 rules gave mobile broadband providers "significant leeway to block or degrade access" because of network management challenges, mobile carriers have made significant improvements to their networks in the past four years, Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman wrote in the filing.

"While not a true substitute for fixed [broadband] services, mobile [broadband] is increasingly relied upon by consumers as a critical, and often times sole, means of accessing the Internet," Beckerman wrote. "Particularly given the evolution of mobile [broadband] since 2010, any operational issues can be resolved through the use of reasonable network management."

Baker, in her speech Wednesday, disagreed. Beyond issues with limited spectrum, the U.S. mobile industry is "fiercely competitive," with about 80 percent of U.S. residents living in areas covered by four or more mobile carriers, she said.

"The competitive nature of mobile provides an important backdrop for issues like net neutrality," she said. "If carriers implement policies that aren't consumer-friendly, consumers will vote with their feet and move to another provider. The FCC should give pause before taking away consumer options or the drive to experiment in a competitive marketplace."

In addition, mobile broadband technology is changing quickly, with new LTE technologies and a range of wearable devices coming soon, said Baker, a former FCC commissioner.

Mobile broadband "remains very much an early-stage technology -- the benefits and applications of which we have only just begun to witness," she said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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