How Neutral Should Wireless Networks Be?

As more of us hop on our 3G-connected smartphones or netbooks, and future 4G connections offer the promise of wired-like speeds via wireless networks, Ars Technica has posted a great article on how regulators in Canada are weighing the issue of network neutrality over wireless networks. Some of the practices described in the article seem egregious, such as carriers charging higher fees to access certain web sites or trying to charge more to send texts with advertising in them.

These clearly violate the assumptions of net neutrality, exactly like Verizon’s refusal to run politically minded text messages did. However, much like legislators use the awful specter of child porn to demand tougher rules about tracking online users, showcasing such examples of interference on wireless networks obscures a cold, hard truth: Wireless network neutrality may not be as practical as advocates might like.

The most common excuse offered by carriers to engage in non-neutral behavior is that they need to manage their network to ensure a quality experience for all subscribers. This isn’t always complete BS. ISPs do have some network constraints and regularly engage in spam-blocking and other practices to keep users happy. However, network management can also be used as an excuse to block services that might be competitive to the ISP, such as Comcast blocking P2P traffic, and may also indicate an unwillingness to upgrade capacity to meet actual demand.

However, for wireless networks, the ability to upgrade capacity is limited by all sorts of technical and regulatory hurdles, such as spectrum ownership and the ability to get more towers in place. So Canada isn’t the only place where consumers, carriers and web site owners need to talk about network neutrality on wireless networks. It’s an issue we should start exploring here as well. I’d like to hear what our readers think.

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