What the New FCC Plans for Net Neutrality Mean for Mobile Devices

jg1We’ve pointed out the net neutrality issue in the past but today might be the day it starts to become less of an issue if I read Stacey’s news report correctly at GigaOm. For those that haven’t heard the term, it essentially means that those companies that transfer data around the world’s networks shouldn’t give preferential treatment to specific types of data. In a nutshell — data should flow freely everywhere. That means broadband carriers mustn’t block competing services from other carriers or providers. How could that possibly change, when the “net” is a massive network of smaller networks? It starts at the top with the FCC — here in the U.S., anyway — and Chairman Julius Genachowski is prepared to preserve the “free and open Internet.”

Earlier this year, we saw the writing on the wall telling us that net neutrality is important to the current FCC chair. Four open Internet principles were discussed, enabling consumer’s rights to access legal content, applications, and services of their choice. Also included was a provision to attach non-harmful devices to networks — something we’ve heard about, but haven’t seen much of with Verizon’s “Any Apps, Any Device” initiative. Even if we had seen some activity on this front, it’s not enough based on two new principles added today by Chairman Genachowski, with emphasis added by me:

“The first would prevent Internet access providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while allowing for reasonable network management. The second principle would ensure that Internet access providers are transparent about the network management practices they implement. The Chairman also proposed clarifying that all six principles apply to all platforms that access the Internet.”

That last phrase bears repeating — all six principles apply to all platforms that access the Internet. Although I haven’t kept up with all of the net neutrality nuances, this is the first time I’ve seen explicit broadening to include all web-enabled devices. Obviously, that means traditional mobile device like phones. But it also includes non-phone devices that contain Wi-Fi modules — think of Apple’s iPod Touch and Microsoft’s ZuneHD, for example. All of the newest Blu-Ray players that offer integrated Netflix streaming would apply here. Internet radio devices, web-connected home security systems and cameras with integrated wireless connectivity all fit the bill. The list is practically endless now.

Device categories aside, how would such an initiative affect mobile device users?

  • It wouldn’t be easy for wireless broadband carriers to deny certain applications or services in situations where they offer their own competing services. The Slingbox for iPhone client works over 3G outside of the U.S., while residents here can only enjoy it over Wi-Fi, for example. The carrier might be concerned about bandwidth constraints, but it’s no coincidence that they offer their own streaming television service for $15 to $30 a month.
  • The market for unlocked phones might open up beyond what it is today. Yes, we have different carriers with different network technologies — CDMA and GSM. And even within the same technologies, carriers use unique frequencies for data today, making it difficult to switch a handset from AT&T to T-Mobile, for example. You can make the switch for voice, but you’ll likely lose your fast 3G web connection. All of this is very different outside of the U.S. where consumers can move their devices among carrier networks far more easily. We still have the frequency issue to deal with of course, but I’m hoping that our national 4G plans offer a sliver of hope towards common frequencies.
  • Some of the services we pay for today could be reduced in price or be free. I think loosely about text messaging here, which essentially cost the carriers nothing. They do generally cost the consumer though. Alternative methods to send a message, such as by using Google Voice and the web, could mature and proliferate with competition.
  • Legal file sharing and peer-to-peer services could explode. Today, most non-technical consumers don’t even realize that these alternatives exist. That’s partly because they’re not aware of the capability and partly because some of the most efficient methods — like BitTorrent — simply aren’t readily supported on some networks. And by “readily supported,” I mean that torrents are outright blocked. While I don’t expect to see folks seeding large HD movie torrents over wireless broadband, freedom offers possibilities for smaller file shares and various new P2P services.
  • Wireless broadband plans might finally drop in price or offer more choices. Today you get choice A or B with most wireless broadband services. Plan A is a minuscule 250MB to 300MB for around $40 a month. Plan B is a much larger 5GB plan for around $60 a month. Which is the “better deal” on paper? Obviously it depends on your wireless demand, but Plan B only costs 50% more yet it offers up to 20 times more supply. So more folks gravitate towards the “better deal” only to pay for 5GB even if they use far less. While the new principles don’t address this aspect — it is, after all, part of the specific business practice of the carriers — it wouldn’t surprise me to see some future aspects tackle this consumer-unfriendly business model.

Want more info on the new proposals that will guide future broadband communications law? Hit up the new http://www.openinternet.gov/ site that just launched. There you’ll find all of the information the FCC is gathering for a more open Internet, can sign up for updates and even join in on the discussion. What’s your take on the new initiatives?

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