Setting the Vegas stage for a declaration of net neutrality victory

11 September 2014 by Steve Blum
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“Our goal in this proceeding is to establish the rules of the road for Internet openness that will provide certainty in the marketplace”, FCC chair Tom Wheeler told his former clients at the CTIA wireless show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. He was talking about network neutrality rules that he drafted and hundreds of thousands of people and organisations are commenting on now. Rules that set up a process for governing the Internet that will be anything but open and certain.

A key question for the mobile telecommunications industry is whether it will have to play by the same “rules of the road” as wireline providers. Right now, it doesn’t. Or at least it wouldn’t if version 1.0 of the network neutrality rules – written in 2010 and tossed out by a federal court earlier this year – was still in effect. Back then, the wireless industry successfully lobbied to be effectively exempt from restrictions on how last mile providers might or might not cut deals with content providers and third-party service platforms.

The reason then was that restricted and expensive mobile bandwidth required different network management practices. Wheeler asked his audience whether that justification is still valid. True to form, Wheeler posed it as a rhetorical question – something for mobile industry lobbyists to refute – rather than an expression of vision or principle. And he not-so-subtly set out a negotiating position: give ground on mobile data caps and throttling and maybe you’ll keep your special status.

Balancing interests is not necessarily a bad thing for a regulator to do. But that doesn’t seem to be the game that Wheeler is playing. Instead, he’s offering to make a populist swap: getting something his “new client, the American people” can understand without thinking too hard – a warm and fuzzy and loophole-ridden declaration on data caps, say – and giving mobile carriers, his former clients, the ability to make up the difference and more on the back end by dodging arcane network neutrality rules imposed on their competitors.