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FCC Pressed To Defend Wireless Open Internet

03 04 2009
AT&T, T-Mobile accused of cutting services, blocking applications.

As cellphones evolve ever faster into “convergence” devices that surf the Web, check email, and enable users to watch and even send videos, the question is — will the wireless Internet be as free and open as its wired counterpart? Or will telecom carriers continue to lock down their networks and block third-party services at a whim?

That’s the question media reform group Free Press posed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today, urging the agency to enforce its “Internet Policy Statement” governing Internet access for wireless networks alike. The Policy Statement mandates that consumers can access the Internet with any device they choose, for any content they wish.

“Wireless broadband networks cannot become a safe haven for discrimination,” said Free Press’ policy counsel Chris Riley. “The Internet in your pocket should be just as free and open as the Internet in your home. The FCC must make it crystal clear that a closed Internet will not be tolerated on any platform.”

The letter to the FCC was provoked by recent reports that two wireless carriers may be preventing certain applications from working on phones exclusive to their networks. When the Skype for iPhone application was released this week, Apple — who partnered with AT&T to sell the iPhone with AT&T as its exclusive carrier — disabled the Skype application from working on its 3G wireless network.

Skype, a free service which enables PC-to-PC phone and video calling to members, still works over Wi-Fi networks apart from AT&T’s own. But the massively popular service was blocked by Apple at AT&T’s request, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Customers are free to download and use the apps they want, but we have no obligation, nor should we have, to facilitate or subsidize our competitors’ businesses,” an AT&T spokesman said.

Similarly, T-Mobile, which partnered with Google in an exclusive deal to sell the G1 “Android” phone, was reported to be cracking down on the sale of “tethering” applications for the G1. “Tethering” enables the phone to be used as a wireless network for a separate desktop or laptop computer, a move which the company said would violate its terms of service — and cut into its mobile broadband sales.

Both moves highlight the problems customers have in closed wireless networks where the service providers determine what they can and cannot use, Free Press said in its FCC letter.

“Wireless networks demonstrate numerous anti-consumer practices that may be violations of the Commission’s Internet Policy Statement,” the group said. “In some cases, these appear to be outright restrictions on applications, services or devices imposed by the carrier. In other cases, there appears to be a business relationship between carriers and equipment vendors designed to cripple applications or hinder consumer choice for anticompetitive purposes.”

Opening wireless networks to all devices and programs has been a large part of the debate over “net neutrality,” the principle that all Internet content should be accessible to all users equally, without discrimination or blocking.

Net neutrality advocates believe that the current state of the U.S. wireless market — where users are locked into contracts to get access to phones — enables carriers to push their own services and block competition from others.

Although the 2008 auction of wireless spectrum required that it be “open” to any device and enable users to access any content, the FCC also dismissed a petition from Skype to open all wireless providers’ networks to its service.

Source: ConsumerAffairs.com

Open skies for white space broadband as FCC gives thumbs up

by ARS – 4 11 2008

The Federal Communications Commission today approved unlicensed wireless devices that operate in the empty “white space” between TV channels. In other words, after four years of effort, “white space” devices have received a unanimous green light.

Denying a tremendous last-minute lobbying effort by broadcasters, the vote on white space devices went ahead as planned today after a several-hour delay at FCC headquarters. When the vote came, though, it was unanimous. For the Democrats on the Commission, the devices are appealing because they offer a potential new avenue for broadband services, while the Republicans are pleased for the same reasons, but love the fact that this is a deregulatory order that focuses on less regulation and more competition.

Robert McDowell praised the “prudent and cautious Order” adopted by the FCC, saying that it would unleash “entrepreneurial brilliance” in the US wireless market.

Everyone took care to stress their commitment to an interference-free rollout, and the FCC will pay special attention to interference concerns relating to broadcast TV and wireless microphones as the devices are introduced. It will also be certifying devices before they can be sold and drawing up the necessary operational standards for them over the next several months.

Deborah Taylor Tate praised the FCC’s own engineers for all their work testing white space prototypes, saying that the “risk of interference has been appropriately considered—and I’ve written down your phone numbers” in case problems arise.

Geolocation will be required, along with a database lookup, in order to provide a “belt-and-suspenders” approach to avoiding interference (spectrum sensing is the belt, in case you were wondering). The FCC will also provide toll-free phone numbers for reporting interference and plans to require the use of software patches to remotely lower power levels in white space devices that are generating interference—one answer to the question of how the agency can possibly police millions of devices once they are already in the field.

White space backers were ecstatic, and one could almost hear champagne corks popping in office suites all across DC. Free Press, which has been a big backer of the technology, said in a statement, “The phone and cable companies that dominate the broadband market promise more of the same slow speeds and high prices that put us in this mess. Opening white spaces adds much-needed competition and innovation—sparking economic growth at a time when jobs and investment are on a downward spiral. Thankfully, the mudslinging is over. Now it’s time to start a new era of innovation that will help close the digital divide and finally provide Internet for everyone.”

The FCC has yet to post the official Order approving white space devices, but stay tuned to Ars for continued coverage as these products make their slow and slippery way to market.

By Nate Anderson | Published: November 04, 2008 – 04:56PM CT