Net Neutrality and the Wireless Internet

Since September I have been working on research on the wireless Internet, and specifically on the application of net neutrality principles to the mobile internet. I began this work at the OECD while I was in Paris on sabbatical. This topic seems to be a hot one. In November Nokia caught wind of it and I was invited to speak in Finland January 18 to present the work in progress. I was also invited to speak on wireless NN at the University of Tilburg (Netherlands) Law and Economics Center (TILEC) February 9. Upon returning from Tilburg I learned that Columbia's Tim Wu had released a paper on…Wireless Net Neutrality. (Beaten to the punch, eh? My report involves a lot more data collection and analysis than Tim's and will have to be reviewed by OECD, so it will be months before it can be released.)

One immediate effect of my “testing the waters” presentations was to convince me that net neutrality is no longer a US-specific issue. There is great interest in the topic in Europe and the norm is spreading globally, even though its meaning is still variegated and debatable in different contexts. I remain frustrated by the extent to which NN debates have become obsessed with what I consider to be non-issues around bandwidth management, such as “tiering” or packet prioritization, at the expense of the much more important exercises of vertical leverage such as blocking and device disabling.

The people at Nokia pushed back gently against my cautiously optimistic view that competition is breaking down attempts by network operators to control handsets. They could not decisively refute my arguments but brought up some new evidence I need to assess. In general they are unhappy with the degree to which network operators control the retail channel and engage in feature blocking of handsets. I share many of their concerns about feature blocking but don't view carrier dominance of the retail channel as a problem. At Tilburg, TILEC Director Pierre Larouche followed my talk with a very systematic and detailed explanation of how European law regarding significant market power, discrimination and interconnection already addresses most of the fears about carrier deviations from net neutrality. He is doing this work along with Researcher Filomena Chirico and doctoral student Ilsa van der Haar. The interesting issue turned on whether a competition law (antitrust) approach is sufficient or whether some new principle, perhaps derived from free expression or universal access concepts, is needed. You'll be hearing more about that from me later.

One comment

  1. Anonymous

    I agree with the way you are parsing the issue. I read Tim Wu's article. It is inaccurate on number of facts concerning the cause and source of NN issues. I also agree that QoS and packet prioritzation are not, for the most part, NN issues. Regretablly, some of the engineers (Peha, Reed) want to focus on the QoS issue as a straw man, because this is what they know about and understand.
    Of course if Prof. Larouche is there then you got the real forwards and backwards treatment. I would have liked to be there.
    I agree with Larouche that competition law can address most of the subtler violations of NN, and direct legisaltion can address the more explicit forms that violate speech rights, such as site blocking for political, financial, or moral reasons.
    In the EU exisitng laws apply equally to both the landlines and wireless networks: there is no distinction based on how the data is transported. Wu suggests the same approach: problem is that we don't have any significant competition law in the US any longer, so it would make no difference.
    Mike Weisman, Seattle