Carriers Aim to Keep Rural Broadband Under Their Thumb

As the Federal Communications Commission tries to formulate a National Broadband plan, wireless carriers are seeking to classify their networks as an acceptable alternative to wired broadband, especially in rural areas. At the same time, those wireless carriers are also trying to convince the FCC that they don’t need to abide by principals of network neutrality. If they succeed, rural areas will be limited to wireless broadband, where carriers control what a subscriber can access on the Internet.

That means bandwidth-sucking applications such as peer-to-peer file transfers and even HD video downloads may be blocked or limited on wireless networks. There are valid technical reasons why carriers need to control such bandwidth-heavy apps over their wireless networks, but a blanket rejection of net neutrality could result in anti-competitive actions. Those actions may include blocking television redirection services from providers like Sling Media, which may be viewed as anti-competitive since carriers resell their own brand of over-the-air television from Qualcomm’s (s qcom) MediaFLO.

The wireless industry trade group CTIA argued in an April 13 filing to the FCC that wireless carriers should not have to abide by the FCC’s Broadband Policy Statement issued back in 2005 that promotes net neutrality. In the same filing, the CTIA asserted that mobile broadband should be considered an adequate replacement for wired broadband. Verizon is also trying to convince the FCC that wireless broadband should be counted when the FCC assesses nationwide broadband penetration. From Verizon’s (s vz) April 10 filing with the FCC:

The Commission’s survey of the broadband marketplaces in foreign countries should
include all of the various competitive alternatives that consumers and businesses may be using for broadband access, and in particular should capture wireless broadband services (a set of services often omitted from past international comparisons).

As carriers roll out faster, fourth-generation Long Term Evolution Networks with speeds that can range between 5 Mbps and 20 Mbps, wireless may be a viable option for rural broadband (provided those areas actually get LTE). However, if operators succeed in ditching network neutrality for their wireless networks, we would be left with a two-tiered system of broadband access, with a wireless tier that’s devoid of net neutrality. And if the FCC decides to let wireless broadband subscriptions substitute for wired broadband access in some areas of the country, those areas will still face a digital divide. But this time the divide won’t be distinguished by a lack of access or slow speeds, but by the limitations on applications and services running over the network.