Clearwire departs from industry take on net neutrality

by Brad Reed, Network World

While most wireless carriers have fiercely opposed the imposition of network neutrality standards on wireless data networks, WiMAX wholesaler Clearwire is taking a decidedly different approach.

Clearwire’s take on net neutrality was on full display during the Federal Communications Commission’s workshop on “preserving the open Internet” held today in Seattle, WA. After T-Mobile CTO Cole Brodman outlined his company’s case against implementing net neutrality rules on wireless networks, Clearwire CCO Mike Sievert said that it would be foolish for wireless carriers to discriminate against different kinds of content and applications that their customers wanted to access.

“If you were told by your wireline provider that there are applications that you can’t run on their network, I don’t think customers would tolerate it,” said Sievert. “We don’t want to impose any restrictions on our own customers that we wouldn’t tolerate from our wireline service.”

Net neutrality refers to the principle that ISPs should not be allowed to block or degrade Internet traffic from their competitors in order to speed up their own. The push for net neutrality began in 2005, when incumbent telecom carriers successfully lobbied the FCC to repeal common carrier rules that required the incumbents to allow ISPs such as EarthLink to buy space on their broadband networks at discount rates.

Sievert explained today that Clearwire is more open to net neutrality principles than other wireless carriers because it already has an IP-based mobile broadband network that isn’t as vulnerable to capacity crunches as today’s 3G cellular networks are.

“We’re a different kind of company in this space,” he said. “Unlike other companies in this space, we don’t have a need to jealously guard our legacy cellular networks.”

Most wireless companies cheered last month when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to impose network neutrality rules on ISPs under its current regulatory framework. Essentially, the court said that the FCC would either have to reclassify ISPs as common carriers or ask Congress to give it explicit permission to enforce net neutrality on carriers. Wireless companies have been particularly opposed to net neutrality, as they say they need to take a strong hand in managing their networks in order to keep them running properly.

Sievert said that while he was sympathetic to carriers’ need to manage their cellular networks, they would be able to use a lighter touch on network management in the future when they get their 4G networks up and running. Sievert predicted that once more carriers attained true broadband capacity on their wireless networks, they would become less likely to block certain applications that consume large amounts of bandwidth.

But while Sievert endorses net neutrality in principle, he said he had no problem with a tiered pricing system when it comes to individual bandwidth consumption. Sievert explained that Clearwire has plans that offer varying amounts of bandwidth consumption for users per month and that users can pay higher prices for unlimited bandwidth usage or lower prices if they want to save money because they don’t use all that much bandwidth per month.

“But unlimited offer means unlimited,” Sievert explained. “We won’t turn you off when you consume 5GB of data, we won’t slow you down or send you a large bill.”
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Clearwire currently has commercial WiMAX services available in more than 27 U.S. markets covering more than 34 million points of presence (POPs). By year-end, Clearwire plans to have built out a WiMAX network that spans all major U.S. markets and that covers 120 million POPs.

The company’s plan has been to build out the network and then wholesale access to companies with bigger brand names such as Sprint, Comcast and Time-Warner Cable. Clearwire is counting on these companies to aggressively promote its WiMAX services, especially since WiMAX is currently the fastest wireless technology available on the market. Clearwire's wholesale partners have also played a big role in funding the build-out of the network, as Clearwire raised $3.2 billion from its big cable partners as well as from big-name tech companies such as Google and Intel.

This wide mix of investors is particularly interesting from a net neutrality perspective, since it includes both Google, which has been net neutrality’s most vocal champion, and Comcast, which has been net neutrality’s most aggressive opponent.

article originally published at Network World.

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