The Federal Communications Commission was kicking around new rules for Internet service providers earlier this month, and Tuesday passed those new rules that are basically in line with what we heard then: more restrictions for what ISPs can do with computer-based high speed Internet, but the mobile broadband Internet is far less regulated.
In a 3-2 vote along party lines, the FCC pushed through rules that say that ISPs can’t adjust the connection speeds of content providers on the wired, cable Internet network. It’s called Net Neutrality, and it’s the idea that the entire Internet should run at the same speed, rather than at varying speeds based on who pays for the privilege of a better connection. It’s a story of Internet provider companies wanting to maximize the money they can get for providing Internet service: if Netflix (NFLX) wants to provide instant streaming video, for example, they could pay Comcast (CMCSA) and other ISPs for a faster connection.
Conversely, providers who couldn’t pay -- small businesses are an often-used example, but even personal websites and blogs -- would experience potentially much slower speeds, which can hurt business and work as a gateway against certain kinds of information or even political views. Net Neutrality advocates have been asking the FCC to pass regulations that would mandate that ISPs can’t throttle Internet connections based on content, but instead provide the entire Internet at one speed and therefore keep everything equal.
The new FCC regulations appear to live up to the idea of protecting the Internet, in part. While the wired computer-based Internet service, the kind you access from a laptop, is now protected from throttling, the FCC has left a lot more freedom to throttle to mobile service providers such as Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), Sprint (S) and others.
It all seems to be about what we heard last time the FCC was talking about potential rules: mobile broadband providers have a tougher network to maintain and different kinds of traffic, like phone calls versus Internet connections, to juggle. Because it takes more work and in order to keep the network running smoothly, the FCC reasons, mobile providers should have greater ability to regulate traffic.
But in the eyes of Net Neutrality advocates, it also means that AT&T and Verizon can make a lot of potential changes to how their networks handle different kinds of content. ISPs on the computer-based Internet are barred from “unreasonable” discrimination of “lawful” Internet content. The FCC defines “reasonable” as being related to legitimate network management -- basically, ISPs can alter connection speeds in order to keep the whole of the Internet working well, but that’s about it.
On the mobile Internet, service providers just have to be transparent in their content alterations. They need to explain what content they’re throttling and why to customers, potentially creating a new aspect of mobile service for customers to consider before choosing a cell phone company, but they’re still able to do what they want on their networks.
It’s a ruling that seems to have left no one happy. Net Neutrality advocates are against allowing mobile carriers a free pass on providing free and open Internet, and even in the vote, the two Republican commissioners heavily dissented to the new rules. New York Times digital media reporter Brian Stelter mentioned on Twitter that Verizon is already considering a challenge to the ruling in court. It seems the FCC has hit a middle ground in which the mobile broadband Internet isn’t quite as protected as many users feel it should be, while service providers still think they should have even more freedom to do what they want with their networks.
When it comes to the mobile Internet, the FCC is claiming it wants to stay out of the way. Internet on mobile devices, and those devices themselves, are quickly evolving, it reasons, so it’s important to take small steps in regulating them. As Engadget pointed out, the FCC’s press release even goes so far as to mention Google’s Android operating system and its openness as being a good reason to leave off mobile regulation.
Also as Engadget points out, that’s a bit of goofy reasoning -- what does Android and openness in software have to do with Internet connection speeds, we’re all wondering. The rules are actually pretty closely in line with the ones Google and Verizon proposed some months ago. So pointing at Google (GOOG) and Android as justification for a lack of regulation seems... well, almost fishy. Or at least confusing.
Conspiracy theories of the FCC succumbing to lobbying pressure aside, the new rules and their effects remain just about as vague as when this story first broke a month ago. Mobile Internet providers have a lot of freedom, thanks to the federal government, but it’s going to take some time to see what they actually do with it. On the plus side, the FCC says your mobile carrier has to tell you what it’s up to when it comes to your Internet connection -- so you should at least get some explanation of what’s changing, and maybe why.