When it comes to wireless, if Google wins, you lose

If Google and Verizon get their way, no one will be able to stand up for wireless customers. Well-considered regulation is needed to stop outrageous practices

The great thing about being an executive at a Silicon Valley giant (aside from the obscene paychecks) is that you don't have to mess with consumer technology problems. You have minions to handle such quotidian chores. But the rest of us, particularly those who rely on wireless technology to do our jobs, have no such luxury. And all too often, we're the victims of shoddy customer service, products that don't work as advertised, and nasty little gotchas that push already sky-high wireless bills even higher.

And that's one reason I'm outraged by the position taken this week by Google and Verizon Wireless that the wireless Web should not be "restrained" by the principles of Net neutrality. Indeed, what the two companies and their pampered executives really mean is that the FCC and the states shouldn't regulate the wireless industry at all.

Consumers be damned.

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The wired Internet is far from dead; wireless services are still unable to deliver high-bandwidth applications nearly as well. Nevertheless, the future is wireless, and carriers like Verizon Wireless are quickly moving investment and R&D dollars away from the so-called public Internet to focus on wireless services, applications, and devices.

So it's no surprise that Verizon Wireless and other carriers want a free hand in wireless. And while it might seem surprising that Google has essentially backed off on its earlier position in favor of Net neutrality, it really isn't. The search engine giant is lavishing money and attention on the Android mobile platform and is casting covetous eyes on wireless as an advertising platform.

All of them are now making arguments filled with falsehoods and obfuscations meant to hoodwink you, me, Congress, and regulators into giving them control over the public spectrum and the open Internet (wired and wireless) it enables and that we all should have.

The lie about being competitive
It's relatively easy for those players to endorse what I would call a vague and toothless Net neutrality policy for the wired Internet, but it's clear from their own words that they have no interest in a wireless Internet that is open to all comers and fair to the consumers who pay for wireless services. (Quotes from the declaration are indented.)

Because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time.

Competitive? "The wireless industry says it is competitive, and because it is competitive there is no need for regulation," says a senior regulator at the California Public Utilities Commission. "But the issue is not about competition, it is about practices the industry engages in, which are inherently anti-consumer." (Name withheld because the regulator was not authorized to speak for the commission.)

"If the wireless companies are so competitive, why do they often engage in exactly the same practices?" the regulator asks. All the major carriers lock their phones to keep subscribers from bringing them to a new provider, something you rarely find in Europe, and all, or nearly all, charge high early-termination fees to keep subscribers from jumping ship. "Those are anticompetitive practices," the regulator says.

The lie about quality of service
Then, of course, there's the question of quality of service, or more aptly, the lack of quality that we've all experienced. States are empowered to investigate those issues under current law, but they almost never do. (Look how Congress recently made noise about Apple's exclusivity deal with network-challenged AT&T, then quietly backed away. Or how it took bloggers, the news media, and European governments to pressure Apple to do something about the iPhone 4's antenna flaws, as U.S. and state regulators were silent.)

The lobbying clout of the wireless industry keeps regulators, many of whom would like to do a better job, under the thumb of politically appointed bosses who owe loyalty to the industry, not consumers.

The FCC would enforce the consumer protection and nondiscrimination requirements through case-by-case adjudication, but would have no rule-making authority with respect to those provisions.

Consider that statement carefully, particularly the phrase "case-by-case." That's like saying we won't make a law punishing theft, but we'll deal with it one theft at a time. "In practice, this poses a nearly insurmountable burden, since it is often impossible for consumers to know what practices are being employed," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president of Media Access Project, an advocacy group for Net neutrality.

The equal-access-to-data lie
Then there's the issue at the core of the Net neutrality argument: That all information and services should be treated equally as they traverse the Internet and the private networks that feed into it.

The FCC would have exclusive authority to oversee broadband Internet access service, but would not have any authority over Internet software applications, content, or services. Regulatory authorities would not be permitted to regulate broadband Internet access service.

What's wrong with that? "Another important shortcoming of the plan is that it would remove all authority for the Federal Trade Commission to exercise its traditional consumer protection role," says Schwartzman.

It's probably trite to chide Google for violating its "don't be evil" motto. But in this case, its plan to jump in bed with the carriers and rob consumers of the protection they need really is evil.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This article, "When it comes to wireless, if Google wins, you lose," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com.

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