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?
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.
But as broadband service displaced telephone-based Internet connections, that support began to waver. In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that broadband access was not a "telecommunications service" but an "information service." This past December, the FCC adopted a compromise that upheld net neutrality for fixed broadband access, but not for mobile services.
The battle over mobile service is key. Most forecasters in the industry predict that users in the United States will mostly connect to the Internet via a mobile device in the future, with the tipping point occurring as early as 2020, by some estimates.
What worries consumer advocates is "how much power just a few cable companies have and their ability to lobby Congress and affect legislation toward their interests, which has been counterproductive of consumer interests," says Ms. De Mooy.
Along these lines, regulatory disclosure filings reveal that in the month leading up to the adoption of the new rules, top FCC officials met with AT&T executives at least eight times, more than with leaders of any other business.
"We ran an open, inclusive, and balanced process, including written comments from more than 200,000 individuals and organizations," a senior FCC official responded in a statement. The FCC says it met about two dozen times with AT&T opponents and public-interest advocates during the same time period.
Nevertheless, net neutrality advocates are far more disappointed with the compromise than AT&T seems to be. The FCC rules are "toothless" and the distinction between fixed and wireless broadband service is artificial, says John Anderson, an academic researcher on digital media at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "This is nothing short of the 'cablization' of the Internet."
Mobile-service providers counter that mobile services need special consideration.
"Wireless networks are very different technologies, and their network management and levels of security all require different management than land-line networks," says Ed McFadden, a spokesman for Verizon . (Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast are the three corporate Internet providers that dominate the broadband market.) He says that Verizon would be satisfied "to live under the FCC rules, as currently constituted," but only through congressional legislation adopted with a two-year waiting period for implementation.
Under the FCC rules, mobile Internet providers will be able not only to slow down Web services but also speed others up, while also being allowed to disallow access to certain applications over others. Consumer advocates charge that this is nothing less than permitting the censorship of the Internet by corporate providers. Further, advocates have brought up concerns that this opens the door to providers denying access to certain applications or preferential speeds to websites more favorable to their own business interests.
"Clearly, Metro PCS was opening the door to paid prioritization," says Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer watchdog group in Washington, D.C. "From the consumer point of view, if only certain companies are offered the opportunity for prioritization, the consumer is going to be worse off."