Working Paper

Wireless Net Neutrality: Cellular Carterfone and Consumer Choice in Mobile Broadband

  • By Tim Wu, Professor, Columbia University School of Law
February 15, 2007 |

Issue Update (2-21-2007): VoIP provider Skype has filed a petition with the FCC to ensure that Carterfone rules apply to commercial wireless networks, citing Tim Wu's paper on Wireless Net Neutrality.  

Below is an Executive Summary.  The full paper is linked below, in PDF format.  

 

Over the next decade, regulators will spend increasing time on the conflicts between the private interests of the wireless industry and the public’s interest in the best uses of its spectrum. This report examines the practices of the wireless industry with an eye toward understanding their influence on innovation and consumer welfare.

In many respects, the mobile wireless market is and remains a wonder. Thanks to both policy and technological innovations, devices that were science fiction thirty years ago are now widely available. Over the last decade, wireless mobile has been an “infant industry,” attempting to achieve economies of scale. That period is over: today, in the United States, there are over 200 million mobile subscribers, and mobile revenues are over $100 billion. As the industry and platform mature, the wireless industry warrants a new look.

This report finds a mixed picture. The wireless industry, over the last decade, has succeeded in bringing wireless telephony at competitive prices to the American public. Yet at the same time, we also find the wireless carriers aggressively controlling product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets, to the detriment of consumers. In the wired world, their policies would, in some cases, be considered simply misguided, and in other cases be considered outrageous and perhaps illegal.

Four areas warrant particular attention:

1. Network Attachments – Carriers exercise excessive control over what devices may be used on the public’s wireless spectrum. The carriers place strong controls over “foreign attachments,” like the AT&T of the 1950s. The FCC’s Carterfone rules, which allow consumers to attach devices of their choice to the wired telephone networks, do not apply to wireless networks. These controls continue to affect the innovation and development of new devices and applications for wireless networks.

2. Product Design and Feature Crippling – By controlling entry, carriers are in a position to exercise strong control over the design of mobile equipment. They have used that power to force equipment developers to omit or cripple many consumer-friendly features. Carriers have also forced manufacturers to include technologies, like “walled garden” Internet access, that neither equipment developers nor consumers want. Finally, through under-disclosed “phone-locking,” the U.S. carriers disable the ability of phones to work on more than one network. A list of features that carriers have blocked, crippled, modified or made difficult to use, at one time or another include:

• Call timers on telephones
• Wi-Fi technology
• Bluetooth technology
• GPS Services
• Advanced SMS services
• Internet Browsers
• Easy Photo file transfer capabilities
• Easy Sound file transfer capabilities
• Email clients
• SIM Card Mobility

3. Discriminatory Broadband Services – In recent years, under the banner of “3G” services, carriers have begun to offer wireless broadband services that compete with Wi-Fi services and may compete with cable and DSL broadband services. However, the services are offered pursuant to undisclosed bandwidth limits and usage restrictions that violate basic network neutrality rules.

Most striking is Verizon Wireless, which prominently advertises “unlimited” data services. However, it and other carriers offer broadband service pursuant both to bandwidth limits, and to contractual limits that bar routine uses of the Internet, including downloading music from legitimate sites like iTunes, use of Voice over IP, and use of sites like YouTube.

4. Application Stall – Mobile application development is by nature technically challenging. However, the carriers have not helped in fostering a robust applications market. In fact, they have imposed excessive burdens and conditions on application entry in the wireless application market, stalling what might otherwise be a powerful input into the U.S. economy. In the words of one developer, “there is really no way to write applications for these things.” The mobile application environment is today, in the words of one developer, “a tarpit of misery, pain and destruction.”

Most of the carriers exhibit similar practices in the areas discussed in this paper. However, in each area, there are variations between the four largest carriers: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint-Nextel, and T-Mobile. Speaking generally, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have the most restrictive policies; Sprint is slightly less restrictive. The fourth and smallest competitor, T-Mobile, tends to be the least restrictive on consumers and application developers. The reliance on a fourth competitor for serious variation in industry practice must be kept in mind when considering any future consolidation.

The report makes four major recommendations:

1. Cellphone Carterfone – The basic and highly successful Carterfone rules in the wired world allow any consumer to attach any safe device to his or her phone line through a standardized jack. The same rule for wireless networks would liberate device innovation in the wireless world, stimulate the development of new applications and free equipment designers to make the best phones possible.

2. Basic Network Neutrality Rules – Wireless carriers should be subject to the same core network neutrality principles under which the cable and DSL industries currently operate. Consumers have the basic right to use the applications of their choice and view the content of their choice. Wireless carriers who offer broadband services should respect the same basic freedoms. Carriers can tier or meter pricing for bandwidth without blocking or degrading consumer choice.

3. Disclosure – Consumer disclosure is a major problem in the wireless world. In addition to the disclosure of areas lacking coverage and rate-plan information, carriers should disclose—fully, prominently, and in plain English—any limits placed on devices, limits on bandwidth usage, or if devices are locked to a single network.

4. Standardize Application Platforms – The industry should re-evaluate its “walled garden” approach to application development, and work together to create clear and unified standards for developers. Application development for mobile devices is stalled, and it is in the carriers’ own interest to try and improve the development environment.

To view the entire paper, please see the PDF document linked below.

Wireless carriers aggressively control product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets, to the detriment of consumers. In the wired world, their policies would, in some cases, be considered simply misguided, and in other cases be considered outrageous and perhaps illegal.

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