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FCC will apply net neutrality to mobile for the first time

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The Federal Communications Commission has proposed bringing full net neutrality rules to wireless carriers for the first time. As with wired broadband, the commission plans to use Title II regulations to ban paid prioritization as well as the blocking and throttling of legal websites, apps, services, and other data.

This is a huge change. Under the 2010 Open Internet Order, wireless providers were prohibited from blocking legal websites as well as apps that competed with their own voice and video products, which still gave them a lot of space to block or limit other content. The commission's reasoning at the time was that wireless networks were still developing and needed lighter rules to ensure continued growth, but these networks have become far more robust in the years since. Wheeler also argues that his proposal continues to incentivize the deployment of new networks — both wired and wireless — by removing burdensome elements of Title II.

Commission chairman Tom Wheeler writes in an op-ed at Wired:

Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.

The change is likely to be ardently opposed by wireless carriers. During the public debates leading up to the FCC's proposal today, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile all strongly expressed their concerns over Title II. Verizon wrote that it would "threaten great harm to an open Internet, competition, and innovation" and would probably not stand up in court. AT&T called Title II "a road to nowhere" as recently as this Monday, saying that those who think it's guaranteed to stand up in court are "deceiving themselves." T-Mobile says that Title II will "stifle innovation." Someone's going to sue. Oddly enough, Sprint has actually said that a light application of Title II — much like what Wheeler is proposing — wouldn't harm network investment, so the idea isn't universally opposed.

It's not yet clear precisely what this will mean for the wonky carriers offerings that seem to stand in opposition to net neutrality, like AT&T's sponsored data and T-Mobile's Music Freedom. These services may be nice for subscribers on the surface, but they effectively prioritize some services over others — and that's likely to be an issue. It's possible that carriers will also be able to maintain some degree of flexibility through its negotiations with device manufacturers, but this may still foreshadow the end to carriers preventing basic apps like FaceTime and Google Wallet from being used, too. We'll find out a lot more as the finer details of Wheeler's plan are unveiled. It's scheduled for a vote at the FCC at the end of the month.