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Former FCC Chair: Yes to Net Neutrality, But Maybe Not Wireless, As He Heads to Firm With Telecom Clients

Kevin Martin, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Wednesday in an interview with USA Today that he supports a current proposal to codify and expand net neutrality rules. But he isn't sure if those rules should the wireless industry, one of the loudest debates to arise from last week's announced proposal.

"As FCC chairman, 'I tried to protect consumers' ability to get access to any content on the Internet," but in a manner that didn't unfairly penalize carriers," the report quoted Martin as saying.

"Should the principles apply to wireless? Martin says he'll have to wait to see the FCC's proposed rules - due out this week - before he can make that call.

Whenever it comes to regulation, he adds, 'You have to be cautious.' "

As reported, Martin will co-chair the practice of Patton Boggs' telecommunications policy practice. The law firm works for Verizon Communications and AT&T (though it did not collect fees from AT&T in 2009 or 2008), according to AT&T and the wireless industry association CTIA-The Wireless Association have come out new rules for how mobile broadband providers can control Web traffic on their cellular networks.

I asked a Patton Boggs spokeswoman Wednesday about the firm's clients, Verizon and AT&T. She declined to immediately respond to the questions in an e-mail saying she will call today.

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 1, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Previous: Update: AT&T Slams Google Voice; Could Open Can of Worms | Next: Readers Ask for Disclosure That Washington Post Owns Cable Co.

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The FCC's rules would be disastrous if applied to wireless networks -- especially those of wireless ISPs.

After all, the original "four principles" were drafted by political appointees without review by engineers. (They weren't, after all, supposed to be enforceable rules.) They thus contain constraints which sound good to the uninitiated but wouldn't work (and would in fact harm users' experience) in practice. For example, the principles stated that a user should be allowed to run "any application" on the provider's network. But, as engineers know, the definition of "application" is extremely broad; it essentially means "any computer program that is not an operating system." Anyone can write one, and it can exhibit any sort of behavior the author wants. So, requiring providers to allow "any application" essentially means that there can be no rules of behavior for the network. Wired networks would be harmed enough by such a constraint, but wireless networks -- which have limited bandwidth and are easily jammed -- will simply cease to function.

Similar problems would arise from another one of the original "principles" -- the one which says that users shall be entitled to connect "any device" to the network. Wireless networks -- especially those operated by wireless ISPs -- need to be carefully engineered to work properly. One with insufficient signal strength, or an incorrect antenna, can slow the entire network. Likewise, attaching an 802.11b device to a network designed for 802.11g can slow the network down by 80 to 90 percent! The Commissioners can be forgiven for not recognizing this when they were just writing up a list of informal, unenforceable "principles," but to institute a rule to this effect would be extremely harmful.

Other parts of the "principles" discussed by Genachowski would prevent ISPs from managing their networks, controlling their costs so as to keep prices reasonable, or maintaining good quality of service. Small and independent ISPs would be especially susceptible and would likely fold, leaving only the larger players with deeper pockets behind. In summary, the only portion of Chairman Genachowski's recommendations that actually makes some sense is the part that requires broadband providers to be transparent about what they are really giving consumers for their money.

See my recommendations at for more.

Brett Glass
Owner and founder, LARIAT
The world's first Wireless ISP (WISP)

Posted by: squirma | October 1, 2009 8:05 PM

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