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Net neutrality is dead (on wireless networks)

Reports of a Google-Verizon traffic-shaping deal only highlight what no one is saying out loud. Net neutrality won't apply in the next network battleground: wireless.

Lost in the hubbub of whether Google and Verizon are nearing a secret deal to tier the Internet is the truth that few will say out loud: Net neutrality is dead on wireless networks.

A war of words erupted this week after a New York Times article that flatly stated that Google and Verizon Communications would soon enact the very definition of Internet tiering: charging content providers more to prioritize delivery to consumers. Cue Internet freakout.

Google and Verizon rushed to deny the story, with Google saying, "we have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet." Verizon said the story was "mistaken" and that there was no business arrangement between the two companies.

But the smoke continued to billow: Bloomberg reported a Google-Verizon "arrangement" for handling Web traffic, saying Verizon wouldn't throttle specific Internet content, but that the neutrality agreement wouldn't include wireless networks. And The Wall Street Journal said the two were close to announcing an agreement that they hope will be used as a model for future legislation around dealing with Web traffic.

Google and Verizon aren't saying much more, for now, and The New York Times appears to be tacitly sticking to its story. But if you read between the lines, and read CEO Eric Schmidt's comments on Net neutrality from this week's Techonomy conference, it's clear that the real traffic battleground is wireless networks.

My guess: Google and Verizon are almost certainly negotiating in a way to keep wired networks neutral and open, but to preserve Verizon and other telcos' ability to tier and shape their wireless networks as they see fit. It's bad news for mobile broadband in the United States, but it's clear that Google's not standing in the way.

Let's look at what Eric Schmidt had to say on the subject at this week's Techonomy conference.

"We're trying to find solutions that bridge between sort of the 'hard-core Net neutrality or else' view and the historic telecom view of no such agreement," he said to reporters. "I want to make sure that everybody understands what we mean about it. What we mean is that if you have one data type, like video, you don't discriminate against one person's video in favor of another. It's OK to discriminate across different types...There is general agreement with Verizon and Google on this issue. The issues of wireless versus wireline get very messy...and that's really an FCC issue, not a Google issue."

But the FCC on Thursday called off the private Net neutrality discussions it's been having with Google, Skype, the Open Internet Coalition, and big ISPs. A statement from the FCC said, in essence, the talks weren't going anywhere and hadn't generated a good plan for preserving openness and freedom on the Internet.

With no more official FCC involvement, the issue of wireless versus wireline discrimination is still up for grabs. And the Times, Bloomberg, and Wall Street Journal all seem to be hinting, as does Schmidt, that some kind of network tiering or content shaping is on the table, very probably on wireless networks.

Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint are holding the cards, when it comes to mobile-broadband infrastructure deployment, and there's no way they're going to allow themselves to be financially and technically hamstrung by the Net neutrality regulations that currently hamper wired networks. The good news is that Google and the FCC will likely be able to extract meaningful Net neutrality promises for wired networks. The bad news? Wireless networks are the future, and that future is not going to be pretty.

The telecommunications companies are in the perfect position to use network scarcity--both real and exaggerated--to force the kind of traffic shaping and double-charging that Comcast and Time Warner can only dream of. And they will. Mobile-data usage is likely to be artificially expensive, restricted, limited, and discriminatory for the immediate future and beyond.

And yes, Google's probably going to agree to it--and pay extra for prioritized delivery of YouTube video on mobile devices. Google can afford to. Too bad about the companies that can't.

As for the FCC, not only has it called off discussions on Net neutrality, it's almost certain to abandon plans to reclassify broadband as a transport service (the so-called "third way" to regaining authority over network management and rollout), in light of opposition to the idea from almost every camp. Put simply: FCC's pretty neutered, here.

Make no mistake: wireless broadband networks are the new battleground for both profit-taking and content delivery, and whatever Google and Verizon decide will, yes, drive future deals and legislation. The best we can hope for is a little more openness in their negotiations. But make plans to keep a nice fat Ethernet pipe running to your house, if you can get it, because wireless networks aren't going to be an answer to bandwidth caps, broadband competition, or high broadband prices anytime soon.