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Obama wireless initiative silent on net neutrality

Without "net neutrality" rules, wireless carriers could charge customers extra to access certain online offerings at high speeds.
Without "net neutrality" rules, wireless carriers could charge customers extra to access certain online offerings at high speeds.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama emphasizes need for high-speed wireless broadband
  • Amy Gahran: Users of wireless networks should enjoy equitable access
  • Wireless carriers are allowed to slow internet access to a crawl, she says
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Editor's note: Amy Gahran writes about mobile tech for CNN.com. She is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and media consultant whose blog, Contentious.com, explores how people communicate in the online age.

(CNN) -- When President Obama announced his vision for a national wireless initiative last week, he emphasized how widespread high-speed wireless broadband would boost the economy and increase opportunities for individual Americans.

This may be true -- but only if users of wireless broadband networks enjoy equitable access to what's available online. Unfortunately, new regulations passed in December by the Federal Communications Commission exempt U.S. wireless carriers from key network neutrality requirements.

In a nutshell, the FCC rules require all companies that provide internet access to be transparent about how they manage network traffic. Similarly, they are forbidden to block access to legal websites or services, even ones that compete with their own offerings.

However, the rules only forbid "fixed" providers (whose networks rely on cables and wires, such as Comcast) to "unreasonably discriminate" against specific kinds of network traffic. Wireless carriers get a free pass on this one.

So for wireless carriers, the door is open for them to slow or otherwise interfere with access to certain sites or services. That is, they may not be allowed to block your access to YouTube or Netflix outright, but they could make your experience with those services slow and painful.

EWeek recently noted, "While most ISPs have said they don't intend to block access to any legal content on the Internet, there are a lot of ways to interpret what it means to block something. Throttling a movie service to near analog modem speeds, for example, may not be technically blocking it, but it has the same effect."

Wireless carriers also could try to charge you extra to access certain online offerings at an acceptable speed.

At Independent Weekly, Fiona Morgan noted, "Charging content providers for access may or may not be allowed. However, charging consumers for higher speeds -- 'usage-based pricing,' as (FCC Chairman Julius) Genachowski puts it -- seems to be OK. The fear among consumer advocacy groups like Free Press is that, instead of the monthly subscriber fees we're used to, consumers will be nickel-and-dimed in a way that will make the airlines look reasonable by comparison."

Furthermore, wireless carriers are allowed to slow all of your internet access to a crawl with a network management practice called throttling.

Already, Verizon has announced that it's reserving the right to throttle service to the 5% of its customers who consume the most data over its network. The carrier is offering almost no details about how it will conduct this practice.

VentureBeat puts it this way: "Wireless companies are free to stop some smartphone users from taking advantage of their data plans by throttling download and upload speeds."

In other words, what good is "all you can eat" data when you're only allowed to sip through a straw?

Within the next few years, mobile devices, largely served by wireless carrier networks, will become the most common way that Americans access the internet. Therefore, the limited net-neutrality protections that the FCC has passed largely won't protect most net users in the future.

It's interesting that the Obama administration specifically singled out wireless broadband internet access (not just broadband) as crucial infrastructure for citizens and our economy.

If this is true -- and it may be -- then the current regulatory situation for the wireless internet is likely to make the digital divide much worse as the internet increasingly goes mobile.

If the only way to get the level of mobile net access you need in order to make a living, understand your world or improve your life or community is to fork over extra money to your wireless carrier, then people or organizations of limited means will probably fall further behind.

The intent of the president's proposal is that a rising tide will lift all boats; but without better net neutrality protections, many wireless users may end up just treading water.

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of Amy Gahran.

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