July 8, 2014 | By Jeremy Gillula and April Glaser

Net Neutrality and Transparency Principles Must Extend to Mobile Internet Access Too

Recent debate about network neutrality has largely focused on how to make sure broadband providers don’t manipulate their customers’ Internet connections (or as John Oliver put it, how to prevent “cable company f*ckery”). But in today’s world of smartphones and tablets people are spending less of their time on the Internet typing at a computer and more of it swiping on a smartphone. This is why it’s critically important for net neutrality principles to apply to mobile broadband too.

The good news is that there is greater competition in the mobile broadband space than the wired broadband market.  Unsatisfied customers should be more able to vote with their wallet and pick a new carrier (absent unduly burdensome, anti-competitive switching costs).  That could change, however, and that means we need to be paying attention. To help that along, here’s a quick explainer.

Smartphones and tablets are computers

A smartphone (or a tablet) is just another type of computer—it just happens to be able to make phone calls and take pictures too. And a smartphone’s Internet connection is its most important feature: after all, how “smart” is a phone that can’t look up directions, share photos or videos, or browse the web (except through Wi-Fi)?

At the same time, people are spending more and more time on the Internet via mobile devices. And for many, mobile devices are the primary source of Internet access. Over half of Americans adults use smartphones. What’s more, African American and Latino communities are more likely to access the Internet on a mobile device than a home wire-line connection. The Internet should be no less open on these platforms.

The ubiquity and necessity of mobile Internet means that it’s vital that we ensure that mobile providers don’t abuse their control. And that means we need net neutrality for mobile broadband too.

What mobile net neutrality looks like today

Unfortunately, having more competition in this space isn’t preventing non-neutral behavior. Equally important, there aren't enough transparency requirements for mobile Internet so that users can exercise their right to vote with their wallets.

As a result, mobile broadband providers are discriminating against certain types of applications and trying to extract more money from consumers depending on how they use their data. For example:

  • AT&T blocked Apple’s FaceTime service in order to force customers to pay higher prices;
  • Both AT&T and Sprint forbid users from maintaining “network connections to the Internet such as through a web camera” unless there’s an active user on the other end;
  • Both  AT&T and T-Mobile forbid users from using peer-to-peer file-sharing applications;
  • In 2011, Verizon blocked tethering, the practice of using your phone’s wireless data for other devices, in order to get customers to pay additional fees, until the FCC stopped them. (T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T still make users pay extra for tethering.)

As of now mobile providers are delivering a second-class Internet, where they get to decide what can and cannot be accessed via your smartphone.

What mobile net neutrality needs to look like

Instead, mobile device owners should enjoy the same levels of control for networked applications on their mobile devices as they do on their laptops and desktops. Service providers shouldn't be blocking sites, shaping traffic, discriminating based on application, etc.  In particular, they shouldn't be restricting tethering.  

Mobile transparency

Mobile broadband providers should also adhere to the same sort of enhanced transparency that’s needed from traditional wire-line broadband providers. That means mobile providers need to regularly disclose what sorts of congestion management techniques they use as well as statistics on download and upload speed, latency, and packet loss, indexed by cell tower location and time of day.

Mobile providers should meet this requirement in two different ways.

For one, we know that mobile companies have gone to extraordinary and intrusive lengths to collect data about network performance and user activity from their customers. While EFF in no way endorses intrusive data collection, if providers insist on continuing the practice, and that data can be released in a way that still protects users' privacy (e.g. via aggregation and anonymization) then service providers should be required to share that data. Such aggregated and anonymized data could help the FCC (and the public) see how mobile broadband network performance varies over time and rough geographical area--great coverage here/not enough coverage there, etc; or (if the data is broken out by endpoints), which services are being throttled due to peering, hosting, and content delivery network arrangements. If providers complain that they have been unfairly accused of non-neutral behavior, let them prove it.

Additionally, providers should give consumers access to the phone's "baseband chip,” the chip in the device that actually communicates with the cellular network, so that we can take measurements of connection quality ourselves. Access to the baseband chip is vital because without baseband-layer performance measurement, consumers are stuck measuring performance from the OS layer, which is only an approximation to the true picture. This is like the difference between measuring traditional broadband speed using your laptop, versus actually measuring it at the cable or DSL modem—if your laptop is running slowly due to other programs the measurements could be skewed.

Zero-rating: when some websites don’t count against your data use

Zero-rating refers to when providers don’t count data to and from certain websites or services toward users’ monthly data limits. T-Mobile’s recent announcement of its Music Freedom plan is a good example of zero-rating: users can stream all the music they want from certain services without worrying about their data limit.

Technically, zero-rating is a type of data discrimination: it allows a mobile broadband provider to influence what Internet services people are more likely to use. In this way zero-rating allows mobile broadband providers to pick winners instead of leaving that determination to the market, thereby stifling competition and innovation.

To be clear, zero-rating has sometimes been used for laudable purposes. For example, the Wikipedia Zero program allows users to access Wikipedia for free. But while to tempting to defend preferential treatment for an invaluable service like Wikipedia, zero-rating still makes it harder for other innovative services -- for-profit or nonprofit -- to get in the game.  

Where do we go from here?

Right now the focus of the net neutrality is traditional broadband. But we need to prevent “mobile broadband f*ckery” too. Accessing the Internet is accessing the Internet, no matter which kind of computer you use. And just as there’s no silver bullet to ensure a neutral net for wired broadband service, it’ll take an ensemble of solutions to keep our mobile connectivity non-discriminatory as well. That means more competition, community based solutions (like the Open Wireless Movement), innovation, transparency, and prohibitions against non-neutral practices, like the blocking of tethering by mobile providers.

In the meantime, the FCC wants to hear from people across the country about how the proposed network neutrality rules will impact us all. So speak up and tell the FCC how and why you use the Internet over your mobile device. Let’s be sure they hear us loud and clear: network neutrality must extend to every way we access the Internet, regardless of whether or not we’re at a desk or on a smartphone.

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