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The mobile revolution hidden in net neutrality

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The biggest news seems to have slipped right by

I've been struggling to write about last week's historic net neutrality vote for a few days now. I've already written so much about the subject that finally seeing the vote to reclassify broadband as a Title II service was almost like a distant happening, a lull before the next vicious battle. People who care about consumers can only luxuriate in victory for so long before Verizon files a lawsuit.

But then MWC kicked off at full speed in Barcelona: the new Samsung Galaxy S6, the new HTC One M9, some mid-range Lumias, an ultra-encrypted Blackphone. There's a weird Sony Android tablet that looks like Clié's Revenge. And Google's Sundar Pichai took the stage this morning to talk about Google's plan to run its own tiny mobile carrier "in the coming months" — not to compete with the big guys, but to push them on network innovation.

"I think we're at the stage where we need to think of hardware, software, and connectivity together," said Pichai. "We want to break down the barriers on how connectivity works."

putting mobile under the same rules as wired networks will be a total game-changer

And that's really the revolution when it comes to net neutrality — putting mobile networks under the same rules as wired networks will be a total game-changer. When the FCC rolled out a largely similar net neutrality plan in 2010, it explicitly excused mobile from the rules because of a "spectrum crunch" that turned out to a be a total head fake. And I'm still not really sure what the hell this was supposed to mean.

But what's clear now is that mobile internet access is actually just internet access, full stop. A huge number of Americans use mobile phones as their primary internet device, and phones are often the only internet device for poor people and minorities. Those numbers aren't going to swing back towards wired access — mobile is too important. And that means enforcing net neutrality on mobile networks is more important than ever.

After all, it's not the wired network companies like Comcast that have been the most guilty of meddling in the marketplace. It's the mobile carriers. Hell, Verizon straight-up said no to the first iPhone. Comcast might have throttled Netflix until Netflix paid up, but AT&T initially blocked Google Voice from the iOS App Store and prevented Hangouts and FaceTime video chat from working over cellular unless you bought the right plan. Verizon basically killed Google Wallet by blocking it on the Galaxy Nexus so that it could favor its own Softcard system.

carriers suck at consumer software

But Softcard was always doomed; in the face of Apple Pay's explosive growth the carriers were forced to give up on it and... sell chunks of it to Google so they could preload Google Wallet. It's a good thing Google Wallet was kneecapped in the market for all those years in between. Sigh.

Here's the thing: carriers suck at consumer software. They always have, and they always will. Verizon shouldn't spend a single extra dime developing VZ Navigator; it should shut that down and spend all that money improving its network. AT&T Address Book should be put to a ruthless, speedy death; all that money should go to improving the network. Placing firm net neutrality rules on mobile means that these companies can't just build crap software and block the good stuff from working; they will actually have to compete. And the competition in mobile software is no joke. Opening up that marketplace beyond the boundaries of app stores means that innovation can happen without the permission of the carriers. It sounds like a small thing, but it will have enormous impact on what Google and Apple and Microsoft can do at the platform level, and that will have enormous impact on everything.

So I'm ridiculously excited for Google to roll out its goofy experimental Nexus network. MVNOs have traditionally failed, but the idea of using a small one as a testbed to better connect devices and software into the network is incredibly compelling. And since Google sells unlocked phones that connect to the big networks, it will have actual leverage to integrate some of those ideas into the mainstream Android experience over time, because the carriers won't be able to stop it.

imagine a marketplace free from carrier interference

Of course, the carriers will certainly try continue to meddle through their certification processes and various marketing deals. If you're LG or Samsung it's hard to look at AT&T's bundle-our-apps-money in the eye and say no. It's the same problem Windows laptop makers have faced with crapware for years. But think of how much faster mobile payments would have rolled out if Verizon hadn't been able to simply block Google Wallet from working. Think of how different the device marketplace would be if Verizon didn't have the unfettered power to temper Google's support for neutrality and 700MHz open-access plan in exchange for releasing the first Droid. Think of a marketplace free from carrier interference.

Get that far, and then wake up by realizing the FCC still has no real plan to deal with sponsored data or T-Mobile zero-rating music services. Baby steps. But exciting ones.