Cellular Companies Want To Have Cake, Eat It Too - InformationWeek

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IoT
IoT
Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
5/3/2007
02:31 PM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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Cellular Companies Want To Have Cake, Eat It Too

The Internet Neutrality debate took an entertaining turn this week when several cellular carriers responded to a petition by VoIP provider Skype asking the Federal Communications Commission to extend its consumer broadband principles to the wireless industry. What we got was a sideshow performance by Verizon Wireless, AT&T and a sock puppet "industry association," the

The Internet Neutrality debate took an entertaining turn this week when several cellular carriers responded to a petition by VoIP provider Skype asking the Federal Communications Commission to extend its consumer broadband principles to the wireless industry. What we got was a sideshow performance by Verizon Wireless, AT&T and a sock puppet "industry association," the CTIA. It appeared that after years of aggressively marketing broadband services, the wireless industry suddenly realized their network performance was inadequate for services like Skype's. At least that's the way I read it.In the story I read by Internetnews.com reporter Roy Marks, AT&T didn't actually use the word "inadequate," of course. What it said was, "AT&T has carefully designed its network to provide optimized circuit-switched voice service, maximizing scale and cost efficiencies."

What I suspect is the real reason comes down in the twelfth paragraph of Marks' story: "Skype further complained the carriers were blocking services like VoIP to gain a competitive advantage."

I'm shocked. Aren't you shocked that cellular carriers would deliberately disable services and features? The consumer groups that supported Skype's petition weren't. A group including the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America said in its response: "Consumers find that handset features and capabilities such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are disabled or crippled by the carriers, thereby limiting the usefulness of the devices and wireless services for applications, such as photo sharing, file transfer or making phone calls via VoIP."

And, writes Marks, the New America Foundation, Public Knowledge, Free Press and the Media Access Project added, "Wireless carriers are hampering innovation and raising costs by using market, technical and contractual barriers to limit consumer choice and reduce competition in communications software and consumer equipment."

That sounds about right to me. And it poses a problem for the FCC and its chairman, Kevin Martin. After all, the commission's statement of principles on broadband was only supposed to be window dressing on a 2005 decision that allowed phone companies to prevent competing broadband service providers from selling DSL on their networks.

The statement was one of the earliest endorsements for Internet Neutrality from a government body. Martin's FCC declared that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice and plug in and run legal devices of their choice. It also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers. "Consumers have demanded this ability, and cable and telephone companies have delivered it," Martin said in 2005.

Of course, the cable and telephone companies had done just the opposite, and Martin and the FCC had been accessories. When his predecessor, Michael Powell, ran the commission, in 2002, Powell oversaw a gift to the cable companies that allowed them to close their lines to competing broadband providers. One of Martin's first acts as chairman was the 2005 matching gift to the telephone companies.

Martin has always appeared to be especially subservient to the telephone companies. He finally had to accept some conditions on the FCC's endorsement of the AT&T-Cingular merger when his fellow Republican commissioner had what can only be described as an attack of conscience and wouldn't vote, but Martin made it clear that the enforcement of the conditions was entirely at his discretion as chairman, and would await a very cool day in a very warm place.

The FCC's broadband principles were doubtless supposed to be exactly like that. They have no legal underpinning. But thanks to legislators like U.S. Representatives Rick Boucher (D-VA), Edward Markey (D-MA), and Ann Eshoo (D-CA) the effort to create that legal underpinning isn't going away. Since the midterm elections Markey is chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications. The Internet Neutrality forces have considerably more clout.

Wouldn't it be terribly embarrassing for Martin if he actually had to enforce the broadband principles he established two years ago?

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