CTIA Claims Exemption in Net Neutrality Debate

Wireless group squares off against advocacy group Public Knowledge as FCC moves toward open Internet rule-making.

By Kenneth Corbin | Posted Dec 15, 2009
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Federal regulators' drive to codify rules that would prohibit network providers from discriminating against certain types of traffic has sparked considerable opposition from ISPs of all stripes. But perhaps no sector is feeling more anxiety than the wireless industry.

"Wireless is different," Chris Guttman-McCabe, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs, said this morning.

In a public debate with Gigi Sohn, president of the pro-Net-neutrality advocacy group Public Knowledge, Guttman-McCabe argued that wireless networks face unique pressures that aren't found in the wireline and cable sectors. Specifically, wireless operators have a finite amount of spectrum, which they use to both connect voice calls and data transmissions.

"In ... our integrated service, one can impact the other," he said. "We can't build out of this.... As much as we'd love to have a flood of spectrum come our way, there's nothing in the pipeline."

At the same time Guttman-McCabe and Sohn were slugging it out it at Washington's National Press Club, CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent was testifying in a House hearing on two bills that seek to address the spectrum problem. One would require an inventory of current spectrum allocations. The other would aim to expedite the process of transferring spectrum from one licensee to another.

Moving spectrum can be a very political fight, with government agencies and television broadcasters reluctant to give up their allocations.

The Federal Communications Commission, which has opened a Net neutrality rule-making procedure, has also launched an inquiry that could lead to a reapportionment of the public airwaves in an effort to spur advanced wireless services.

In this morning's debate, Sohn acknowledged that wireless carriers are in a different position than wireline and cable providers. But at the same time, she argued that the rise of smartphones -- pocket-sized computers, really -- has made it clear that the firms CTIA represents are ISPs in the same sense as traditional providers, and should be subject to the same obligations.

"The FCC is right to give wireless providers a little more wiggle room," she said. "But do we really want two Internets?"

She conceded that ISPs, both wireline and wireless, need to have some latitude to manage congestion on their networks. The FCC's rule-making notice acknowledges the same, though it leaves the term "reasonable network management" open to broad interpretation.

"You shouldn't be able to just pick a certain application and throttle it back because it's high-bandwidth. That's discriminatory," Sohn said. "Prioritization is realty where we disagree."

But carriers argue that the rise of data-intensive mobile applications threatens to sap their network capacity.

That concern has seen AT&T, for instance, restrict access to applications like Sling Media's iPhone app that connected to the SlingBox, a device that enables users to remotely access TV content recorded at home.

"Three uses of SlingBox within a cell site can bring down the cell site," Guttman-McCabe said.

This afternoon, the FCC is holding a workshop on its Net neutrality proposal. The commission is expected to vote on the rule-making early next year.

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