Proposed Wireless NN Rule “No Block, But Not No Lock?”

An interesting tidbit from Washington Post Reporter Celia Kang’s interview with Ruth Milkman, the FCC’s Wireless Bureau Chief. Of interest, Milkman states that the application of network neutrality to wireless would still allow cellular companies to lock cell phones to wireless providers.

How are the proposed rules different from conditions on the C block during the 700 MHZ auction? There, net neutrality rules were put in place that allow any device to attach to the network and prevent Verizon Wireless, who won the spectrum, from blocking Web content.

The difference between what we are thinking about in the general NPRM (notice of proposed rule-making) and the C Block is that we are not proposing a no-locking rule. So I guess it’s no block but not no-lock. If consumers can get an unlocked device and not harm the network, the consumer ought to be able to attach that device to a network. Does a service provider have to unlock the device it provides to the consumer? The draft doesn’t go that extra step.

This is an interesting twist on the application of the third principle of the 2005 Internet Policy Statement:

To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.

(emphasis in original). This is generally taken as the application of the “Carterfone” principle (and the Internet Policy Statement cites the Carterfone decision in case anyone misses this point). This is the decision that held that AT&T could not refuse to allow you to connect any device, like and answering machine or a phone you owned or a dial-up modem, to the phone network.

Milkman is right that the freedom to connect to a network is not necessarily the same thing as the freedom to move a device that comes locked from one network to another. In the old days, it wasn’t necessary to say it that way because there weren’t other networks to attach your device. The question was whether somebody other than Ma Bell could make something and attach it to the phone network. By the time we got to multiple wireline networks serving the same neighborhood, the consumer electronics market was so well developed that the idea of trying to lock particular laptops or wireless routers to specific network providers did not make much sense. Indeed, even in the never ending fight over set-top boxes and cablecard, the fight is over the ability to attach to an MVPD network, not the ability to unlock a device and move it from one MVPD network to another.

Most of us have always assumed that network neutrality applied to wireless would include both “no blocking” of content and applications and “no locking” devices to networks. But I suppose it doesn’t have to be that way. And, of course, this does not stop the FCC from dealing with handset exclusivity separately.

Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise. Nice to have the heads up, and tip ‘o the hat to Celia for doing this series of interviews with important folks at the FCC.

Stay tuned . . . .

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