Every cell phone tower includes scheduling software that decides how fast e-mails, videos, and photos flow to and from wireless gadgets. Today these schedulers are programmed, at least in part, to make sure that the most profitable Internet traffic moves along at a fast clip. But under forthcoming Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “Net neutrality” regulations, wireless carriers may have to more strongly consider something else: fairness.
“Sometimes these (wireless) schedulers are designed to maximize throughput, rather than fairness,” says Dipankar Raychaudhuri, director of the Winlab, a mobile Internet research lab at Rutgers University. “For example, you can maximize throughput to someone who has a strong signal–favoring one user who has a high signal over another who doesn’t–so that it leads to higher revenue.”
Last week, delivering on an Obama campaign promise, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced in a speech that he would propose Net neutrality regulations. Such rules would promote the Internet as a level playing field, and prohibit service providers from slowing down or blocking access to websites or applications. The actual draft rules will be released next month, but Genachowski made it clear that both wired and wireless technologies are in the crosshairs. “It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it,” he said, adding that “how the principles apply may differ depending on the access platform or technology.”
Ensuring Net neutrality across the airwaves will be more complex though. “I don’t have a position on Net neutrality,” Raychaudhuri adds, “but this would be quite an interesting technical problem to try and solve.”
The complexity of the situation is illustrated by a recent flare-up in the wireless space. The FCC is investigating a claim by Google that its Google Voice application was unfairly rejected from Apple’s iPhone App Store. AT&T, which provides iPhone service, shot back in a letter to the FCC that Google’s voice application blocks calls to some rural areas where it would be more expensive for Google to connect.
It’s not clear yet whether Google Voice–which bridges both Internet and landline connections–would be considered in violation of any existing regulation. Because while traditional phone companies are barred by regulation from blocking calls to far-flung exchanges, Internet telephony applications do not yet face such regulation.
As any cell phone user knows, quality of service depends on how close the nearest cell towers are, how many other people are using the network, and a host of other factors. Already, the number of iPhones in service is causing traffic congestion on AT&T’s network, and “this will happen to all of the operators as smart phones and data traffic grows very rapidly,” says Raychaudhuri.
Defining and regulating “fairness” as it pertains to wireless Internet traffic is inherently difficult, says Mung Chiang, a Princeton electrical engineering professor working on broadband access algorithms. “The notion of congestion–what is it, how often it happens, who is to blame–it’s much harder to define in wireless networks,” compared to landline Internet connections, he says. “Who is going to take the blame when somebody close to a tower transmits signals that may wipe out others, even if this person may not be downloading movies?”