Policy

A Shot Across Net Neutrality’s Bow

1/17/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington — The Federal Communications Commission’s
new network-neutrality rules aren’t set to go
into effect for at least a couple of months, but Free Press
— whose complaint over Comcast’s blocking of a peer-topeer
file sharing application led to their adoption — already
wants the agency to look into a potential violation.

Free Press is calling on the FCC to investigate mobile
Internet provider MetroPCS’s new usage-based Internet
pricing plan for what
the media-reform advocacy
group has argued could be at
least the precursor to a violation
of the new rules against
blocking and discriminating
against Internet content providers.

That eagerness to push for a probe should be a signal
that cable operators and telcos can expect that networkneutrality
advocates — many of whom complained the
rules enacted late last month were not nearly tough enough
— will be racking up “frequent flier” points at the commission.

SERVING NOTICE

Free Press concedes its complaint isn’t a reaction to
something that has already happened, but rather a warning
shot against potential network-neutrality violations
by wireless broadband providers, according to the Washington-
based group.

“I’d like to get the world on notice that … when the
[network-neutrality rules are effective], this is the sort of
thing we are going to be filing complaints about,” Free
Press policy counsel Chris Riley told Multichannel News.

Free Press is looking to make the point that those rules,
even if put into effect, contain loopholes for mobile discrimination,
since most of the neutrality rules have not
been applied to mobile broadband. Only transparency and
site-blocking regulations apply to mobile providers, though
the FCC has said it will monitor that space.

Saying MetroPCS’s new usage-based pricing plan could
potentially violate those rules, even with their limited application
to mobile, Riley — joined by Media Access Project,
the Center for Media Justice, and others — said last
week: “The FCC’s mobile broadband loopholes adopted
in its December net-neutrality order are already leading
to anti-competitive, anti-consumer practices. The agency
must act quickly to investigate MetroPCS’s service plans
before similar blocking and content-based discrimination
on wireless networks becomes an industry-wide problem.”

In a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, they
noted that cell phone provider MetroPCS’s new plan —
in which it offers talk, text, “Web browsing” and YouTube
for $40 — would charge more for other uses.
The groups claimed those
uses include Skype, Netflix
and other outside Internet
services that might be
excluded from MetroPCS’s
“walled garden” if the plan
is extended to more fully
functional handsets.

If so, once the new rules kick in, that could violate their
prohibition on the blocking of any competitive voice or video
application, like Skype, from mobile networks.

In addition, FCC rules allow for usage-based pricing for
both wired and wireless broadband, but do not allow either
wired or wireless providers to block access to websites or,
the groups suggest, for usage-based pricing to become a
proxy for blocking access to websites by mobile providers.

“Although this category is ambiguous, various news reports,
documents and statements provided by MetroPCS
indicate that it includes popular Internet applications and
services, including Skype and Netflix,” the net-neutrality
advocates said in their letter to the chairman. “Users of
the base MetroPCS plan apparently will not have access
to such Internet content, web sites, applications, and services.”
The groups want the FCC to step in to prevent other
wireless carriers from following suit.

‘SPECULATIVE’ GRIPE

In an interview with Multichannel News, Riley conceded
the complaint is “still a little speculative.” That’s partly
because the rules aren’t on the books, and partly because
the single handset available via MetroPCS’s new usage
plan can’t install a Skype application anyway, and has a
limited Web browser that might not be able to access the
“full panoply” of the Web.

“But if and when these plans get used for Android phones
or iPhones, if MetroPCS gets that, if there is any sort of service
plan limitation that says you can install Skype and
have the capability to look at advanced Web sites, but under
this service plan you are not allowed to do that, then
that in my view is a straight violation of the rules,” he said.

“This is exactly the way we expected carriers to ‘test’ the
FCC’s resolve with respect to wireless network neutrality,”
said Media Access Project president and CEO Andrew
Schwartzman. “Unless the Commission responds decisively,
MetroPCS’ competitors are likely to follow suit.”

CNET last week reported that CEO Roger Linquist said
in a e-mail, “These new rate plans comply with the FCC’s
new rules on mobile open Internet.”

BATTLE PLAN?

According to a MetroPCS announcement of
its new offering, these are the differentially
priced talk and data plans that have drawn
Free Press and Media Access Project fire at
the commission:

$40 service plan: “Offers unlimited talk, text, 4G
Web browsing with unlimited YouTube access.”

$50 service plan: “Includes the same unlimited
talk, text, 4G Web services and unlimited
YouTube access as the $40 plan. Additional
features include international and premium
text messaging, turn-by-turn navigation with
MetroNAVIGATOR, ScreenIT, mobile instant
messaging, corporate e-mail and 1 GB of
additional data access, with premium features
available through MetroSTUDIO when connected
via Wi-Fi, including audio capabilities to listen and
download music and access to preview and trial
video content.

$60 service plan: “Provides the same premium
features as the $50 plan, plus unlimited data
access and MetroSTUDIO premium content,
such as 18 video-on-demand channels and audio
downloads.”

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