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Should the Airwaves Be Neutral?

October 27, 2010

The utility of a user’s next smart phone–what it will be capable of doing, and what it will be allowed to do–could be determined not by technology companies or phone company executives but, rather, by legislatures and government agencies. Around the world, these bodies are wrangling over whether to require that the airwaves be run as neutral networks, meaning that providers would have to let people use cell-phone bandwidth however they choose (see “Making Wireless like Wired” and Q&A).

In the United States, the debate heated up in April, when a federal appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission lacked the power to impose network neutrality by regulatory fiat, even for the wired Internet. Momentum for wireless net neutrality slowed further this summer when one of its staunchest proponents, Google, effectively switched sides. In 2008 the search giant risked $4.6 billion by guaranteeing a minimum bid for an FCC spectrum auction, on the condition that any winner provide open access for third-party devices and applications (Verizon subsequently bought nearly all the auctioned spectrum). But this August, Google decided that such rules shouldn’t apply to all wireless networks–that when capacity is tight, ­simply letting users communicate however they like risks a huge traffic jam that benefits no one. Despite efforts by the FCC to find a way around the April appeals court decision, it now seems likely that any far-reaching rules will take an act of Congress. That is unlikely, since many Republican legislators fiercely oppose net neutrality.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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