Mathias On Mobility: Net Neutrality's For Wireless Too - InformationWeek

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11/10/2009
04:02 PM
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Mathias On Mobility: Net Neutrality's For Wireless Too

Our columnist argues that network neutrality, in the form of requiring open access, must apply to wireless carriers.

The FCC, under new Chairman Julius Genachowski, recently kicked the net-neutrality argument back to the front burner with an announcement that it finally intends to get serious about establishing a level playing field for carriers and their customers.

I want to be up-front here. I'm a major proponent of network neutrality and open access, and, yes, for wireless carriers, too. The wireless carriers think they should be exempt from any regulation here, and for all kinds of reasons. Let’s go right to the big one here--they’ve paid billions for their spectrum. Yes, indeed they did, and I also want to be up front here in saying that I’ve always thought spectrum auctions are bad public policy that should be abandoned. They are, in fact, just a hidden tax that get paid by--guess who?--you and me.

But much more importantly, outrageous auction fees or not, the airwaves are licensed, not sold, and remain a public conveyance. We, the customers of the carriers, have every right to expect that any and all legal traffic will be carried without undue hindrance or outright gate-keeping on the part of the carriers. They collect the tolls, sure, but they can’t decide who gets to go over the bridge. A smile and a wave while doing so wouldn’t kill them.

It’s actually been quite amazing to me to watch the steady decline in the general quality of customer service on the part of so many businesses, not just wireless carriers, over the past couple of decades. The fundamental reason for a business to exist, the great management theorist Peter Drucker told us so many years ago, is to serve a customer. Sure, there’s an exchange of value, and the relationship is almost always voluntary, and competition should limit abuse, but it seems that all too often we, the customers, are hamstrung by corporations who seems intent upon a mission of little beyond extracting ever more cash out of us.

Take wireless, where unlimited data plans suddenly became limited. AT&T Wireless sold a slew of iPhones, now complains that its network is getting choked, and hints at additional throttling required. Did one hand not know what the other was doing? Were poorly set customer expectations even remotely considered here?

But all is not lost. Even AT&T recently relented on allowing Skype over their 3G network, perhaps in response to the coming regulations from the FCC. The market, in terms of competition, anyway, seems to be failing us, and, as distasteful as this may be, the only hope now is the regulators, and they’re getting busy. I’m assuming, being an engineer and all, that issues related to the availability of bandwidth will be successfully addressed by more cell sites (via cell splitting), the use of Wi-Fi and dual-mode handsets to offload the licensed spectrum in high-density areas, and advances in basic technologies like LTE and HSPA+.

But along with these must be regulation which forces carriers to transport any legitimate traffic, even upper-layer apps from competitive value-added services. The Internet is either open or it isn’t, and in my humble opinion, it must always be for the good of commerce and society overall.

If the carriers want to make a buck at this, here’s an idea: don’t charge for bandwidth, but instead charge for priority. Have platinum, gold, silver, yes, you get the idea here, levels of service, and a higher level, at a higher price, gets you to the front of the queue more often – kind of like automatically going to the front of the security line at the airport if you have a first-class ticket.

I’d be happy to pay extra for that, as I’m sure many businesspeople would. Everyone gets to pay the amount they prefer. Everyone gets access to all of the rich services on the Web and beyond. And, most importantly, everyone goes home happy.

Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows,

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