Open access to the Internet has created the incredible wealth of information available in an instant, whether we're pecking away at a desktop computer or — increasingly — thumbing through screens displayed on a smartphone. Now that open access is threatened by Verizon and Google, who want wireless Internet communication to be free of most government regulations so providers could treat some information services differently than others. That would be bad for consumers, and the Federal Communications Commission should write effective rules to keep the Internet fair and open.
The principle of Net neutrality — that broadband providers treat all legal data equally on their transmission lines — has allowed start-ups such as eBay, Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia and Google itself to become what they are today. Building a workable way for regulators to keep the wireless as well as the wired Internet open will protect the public's right to access information of their choice — not just what a provider wishes to transmit along its lines at the fastest speeds because of some insider deal.
The government, particularly the FCC, has an important and appropriate role. It is reasonable for federal regulators to set practical standards for acceptable levels of service for all high-speed service providers. Then it can allow providers to charge consumers more for levels of service beyond that, if they want even faster speeds or bigger downloads, for example.
The future isn't hardwired. It is the wireless Internet of the smartphone and of devices not invented yet. And when Google and Verizon recently announced their proposed framework for the future of the Internet, they wanted the wireless version largely left out of the discussion.
The general argument for exempting wireless is that its spectrum is narrower than the wired Internet's big pipelines, so providers need the ability to police and manage their networks to ease congestion. Another argument is that competition, not government regulation, is the answer.
How well has competition worked? Ask anyone who has been locked into a multiyear cell phone contract or who has tried to puzzle through a indecipherable multipage bill.
Congestion will ease as the wireless Internet expands into faster 4G networks and if the government makes more spectrum available to cell phone companies — as it should. In fact, prompting providers to keep their networks open and without discrimination will encourage faster networks to be built sooner, as the companies that offer the best service will be the winners, as will consumers.
In ensuring Net neutrality for wired and wireless Internet users, the government would be letting consumers, not the broadband providers, pick the winners and losers. In a letter to the FCC chairman last month, U.S. Reps. Edward Markey, Mike Doyle, Anna Eshoo and Jay Inslee lay out four principles officials should remember as the discussion goes forward:
• That the FCC have the authority to oversee broadband access services;
• That allowing paid prioritizations — "pay for play" — would close the open Internet;
• That wired and wireless services should have a common regulatory framework and rules;
• That broad "managed services" exceptions — as proposed by Google and Verizon — would swallow open Internet rules.
These four guideposts offer good starting points to manage the future of an open Internet.