Getting Closer to Net Neutrality on Mobile Networks

Research Shows it is Technically Feasible and Legally Possible

article | November 13, 2014

The tech policy world is still abuzz from President Obama’s endorsement of strong net neutrality rules. But in addition to calling for broadband to be reclassified as a telecommunications service, the President also emphasized the importance of having net neutrality rules apply to mobile networks as well as fixed broadband:

The rules also have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device. I believe the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.

OTI agrees completely. There should be only one Internet — and the public interest in open and non-discriminatory Internet access is platform agnostic.

In our initial and reply comments submitted to the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding, we argue at length about the compelling rationale for net neutrality rules that apply equally to mobile and wireline networks. Without such ‘platform parity’ between mobile and fixed networks, the user experience of going online could vary dramatically simply based on the technology used.

Data use on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets is growing. But a growing proportion of that traffic is over a local Wi-Fi connection, which ultimately rely on wireline broadband networks. If strong net neutrality rules applied only to fixed broadband providers, but not to mobile providers, it would mean that as users of smartphones and other mobile devices move back and forth between Wi-Fi and mobile carrier networks, they could be subject to a different Internet experience, one where blocking or paid prioritization was more common. This change in experience could even occur during a single browsing session or Skype call absent a common set of rules.

Moreover, lower-income and minority households rely on mobile networks for Internet access to a far greater degree than other households. The lack of net neutrality rules on mobile networks would, therefore, have a greater impact on the online experience for historically marginalized communities, widening the digital divide instead of bridging it.

The mobile industry has claimed that net neutrality rules should not apply to their networks on both technical and legal grounds. This week OTI filed ex parte documents with the FCC responding to both of these remaining roadblocks to unified rules.

Responding to technical concerns, today OTI filed an engineering report by CTC Technology & Energy. The report describes how mobile carrier LTE networks (“4G”) can manage their networks in a content and application neutral way.

The report explains that in most times and places, mobile networks are not congested and no prioritization is needed. When there is moderate congestion, it is possible for mobile providers to employ user-directed prioritization, which gives subscribers the option to pay a premium for faster throughput.

In times of severe congestion, such as at a major sporting event, the report acknowledges that the prioritization of delay-sensitive applications like VoIP calls and video conferencing can be a reasonable means of ensuring quality of service in a capacity-constrained cell or sector. At the same time, the report shows that LTE networks are fully capable of prioritizing a category of delay-sensitive apps (such as VoIP) in a completely non-discriminatory way that does not favor carrier or carrier-affiliated apps, content or services.

These approaches have the benefit of ensuring that traffic management only occurs in instances of actual congestion. And that when severe congestion occurs in a particular location, LTE networks can treat ‘like’ applications (with similar delay tolerance levels) alike regardless of whether they have a business relationship with the mobile network operator.

Responding to legal concerns, OTI filed an ex parte document on legal authority that describes how current mobile broadband services are the “functional equivalent” of the “commercial mobile radio services” (CMRS) that Congress requires the FCC to regulate as common carriers. If the FCC reclassifies broadband Internet access services as “telecommunications” -- which is what the President and over 3 million Americans, major tech companies, more than 60 members of Congress and a host of netroots activists are urging -- then the FCC will need to also reclassify mobile broadband as CMRS to avoid a statutory contradiction. Doing so will make it possible to have a common regulatory framework with strong rules enforcing net neutrality principles against blocking, throttling and discriminating against certain content or applications.

Net neutrality is central to a free and open Internet. The President’s remarks are an important milestone in the FCC’s efforts to establish firm and clear rules. But as the President also points out, applying these same rules to mobile networks is equally important.