Less mobile Internet. Cheaper price. But a fair deal?
New federal rules allow Metro PCS to offer a low-cost plan that blocks access to popular websites on the mobile Internet. Critics say it's a breach of net neutrality.
Next time you surf the Web with a smart phone, ask yourself: Should your mobile device serve up the Internet the way your desktop computer does – namely, all the data you want? Or should it offer just certain channels of data, like cable or satellite TV does?Skip to next paragraph
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That is the crux of an ongoing battle over the future of Internet service, a fight that has recently escalated to a new level. If the answer seems obvious – after all, who does not want access to all that the Internet has to offer – corporate Internet providers and the federal government insist that new technologies dictate otherwise.
As consumers increasingly turn to smart phones and tablet computers to surf the Web, corporate providers are scrambling to lure new customers without overwhelming their networks. Some, such as AT&T, have turned to capping monthly use. Metro PCS, a Dallas-based company offering mobile service in more than a dozen metro areas, is experimenting with a different tack, one that has created a firestorm of criticism from consumer and media-reform groups that claim it threatens the openness of the Internet.
A $40-a-month plan for its new high-speed data service blocks access to popular but data-intensive applications such as the movie-rental website NetFlix and the visual-phone service Skype. Metro PCS points out that consumers have a choice, because they can pay $60 a month for unlimited and unfettered access to the Internet. Critics, many of whom have formed a Save the Internet Coalition, charge that Metro PCS and other corporate pro-viders are attempting to boost their profits by divvying up different tiers of access, thus turning the provision of Internet service into a cable TV model.
"The company has been disingenuous, at best, because they have not been acting in the best interests of consumers," says Michelle De Mooy, a senior associate of Consumer Action, a consumer group based in Washington. The $40 plan brings "about charges against services that would otherwise be free on the Internet, violating net neutrality in the process."
In January, Free Press, a media-reform group with offices in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts wrote the Federal Communications Commission, charging that Metro PCS had violated FCC rules, which are currently pending implementation. The company wrote a long response to the FCC and released a statement from cofounder and chief executive officer Roger Linquist: "Criticisms … by some net neutrality advocates are unjustified and erroneous." The company declined further comment for this article.
While Metro PCS is the current flash point over net neutrality – the idea that the Internet is open in nature – the conflict has been simmering for some time. In contrast to cable and satellite television service, Internet service providers generally can't restrict access to certain websites, slow down service to some Internet entities, or pick and choose which Web applications users can utilize. For years, the FCC upheld these principles under the "common carriage" rules it used for telephone service.