The wireless industry is gearing up for a fight over "net neutrality."
On Monday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his support for the principle that different kinds of traffic should move across the Internet without discrimination. But he stunned the industry when he said "net neutrality" should also apply to wireless devices.
Cell phone companies say their services are very different from the regular Internet, and they warn of dire consequences if they're held to the same standards.
'Manage The Traffic'
For example, there's an application called Slingbox for those who want to watch TV on their iPhones â€” it redirects home TV service to hand-helds. But people can't use it on the iPhone's AT&T wireless network.
That's because Slingbox consumes a lot of capacity, according to Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T, which recently barred iPhone users from using it. Despite how cool the application may be, Siegel says there are practical considerations.
"Wireless is fundamentally a shared resource," Siegel says. "So if you have a wireless tower in your area, the people in that area that have your service are contending for that resource at any given time. We have to manage the traffic."
The words "manage the traffic" are anathema to someone like Robb Topolski. He's the guy who discovered that Comcast Corp., a cable Internet service provider, was blocking, or slowing down, certain kinds of file-sharing.
"That's my claim to eternal geekdom," Topolski says.
Topolski's discovery added momentum to the "net neutrality" movement: Today he works for the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and he favors extending neutrality to wireless.
"The Internet is a defined thing," he says. "It's a set of standards, it's a set of expectations of operations that the wireless service providers â€” as members of the Internet community â€” are expected to adhere to."
It's a popular sentiment. Some call it "techno-populism."
A Perfect Storm
But Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of CTIA, the wireless industry's association, warns of unintended consequences.
"A YouTube download takes 100 times the bandwidth of a voice call," he says. "So that gives you a sense of this impending perfect storm that we're going to have on the broadband side."
The industry won't cite actual instances of applications causing outages on their networks â€” right now, industry representatives talk only of "potential" problems.
Net neutrality advocates point out that the carriers are strangely tolerant of some bandwidth hogs â€” YouTube, for instance â€” but not others, like Slingbox.
Guttman-McCabe defends the carriers' right to make those decisions. He says it's a matter of fairness to the companies.
"You do not see NPR being asked to carry advertisements for other radio station groups or programs," he says.
Guttman-McCabe says the U.S. has one of the most competitive and innovative wireless industries in the world, but if the FCC starts enforcing neutrality, that might change. The industry has invested billions buying radio spectrum, and it will need to spend billions more to keep expanding coverage and bandwidth. Neutrality regulations might have a chilling effect.
"To be honest with you, from our perspective, it inserts more than a fair amount of uncertainty into the provision of service," Guttman-McCabe says.
It's not yet clear how aggressive the FCC will be in pushing neutrality on the wireless networks. So far, the chairman has laid out only general "principles." And Genachowski says he's willing to shape the rules to suit wireless companies' technical challenges.