Wireless Network Neutrality

14 Nov ’05

It’s probably fair to say that we’ve become accustomed to thinking about wireless networks as more proprietary / closed than wireline IP networks, largely because thus far wireless has essentially meant celullar, and cellular networks in North America have generally evolved as closed systems – in terms of interoperability of equipment, and one’s ability to use one’s own equipment on a network, in any event – with the exception, in some respects, of GSM networks. But as wide area wireless now starts to mean more than cellular, issues of network neutrality will be pushed on to the agenda and will have to be dealt with, just as they are now surfacing for wireline broadband. Partly, the issues are billing issues – network operators have no intention (at least not at present, given the weak state of authentication on cellular networks) of being liable for fraudulently incurred bandwidth charges. But there are content and other substantive issues emerging now as well.

Techdirt recently posted on the comments of a Verizon executive asserting, naturally, that neutrality should not be the rule for wireless. Gist:

“Network management” will become a euphemism for “content blocking”, with financial considerations, not technical ones, driving the decisions. If carriers are going to advertise unlimited service, they need to sell open, unlimited service, not not pretend there aren’t capacity constraints, then hide restrictions in fine print and selectively block services that compete with their own. There’s not much point in the operators trying to hide their sentiments, as it’s pretty clear they’ll go to drastic measures to get what they want.

In The World is Flat Tom Friedman contrasts the state of our wireless networks with those in Japan and Ghana and we take a beating. He notes the excellent quality of his connection, emailing and web-surfing as he travels on a bullet train in Japan at 240 kph, and contrasts it with the difficulty of simply maintaining a connection on the drive downtown from the suburbs of Washington D.C.

For my part I’m not sure what the policy issues are that have led us down this path to technological inferiority, but it seems evident that getting out of it is going to require that the network operators spend more of their time figuring out how to make wireless as ubiquitous and empowering as possible, and less of their time figuring out how to cripple usability.

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