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Ask Maggie: Net neutrality, Verizon iPhones on Sprint, and more

Maggie lets readers know how the FCC's new Net neutrality rules will affect consumers and whether a future Verizon iPhone will be usable on Sprint.

The Federal Communications Commission adopted this week new rules intended to protect consumers from nefarious broadband providers who in the future may monkey with rivals' network traffic to boost usage of their own services.

Ask Maggie

But what do these so-called Net neutrality rules mean for consumers? In this week's Ask Maggie column, I try to answer a reader's question about what protections the new rules provide for certain applications, such as Skype and Netflix.

I also break the bad news to another reader that he will not be able to use a Verizon iPhone, when it's eventually released, on Sprint Nextel's network. And finally, I advise another reader to buy a new prepaid phone for her father.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' questions about issues related to wireless and broadband. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail, at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Deciphering Net neutrality rules

Dear Maggie,
I caught the remaining seconds of your National Public Radio interview this week about Net neutrality, and I wanted to ask you for a little clarity on two specific applications (which will likely shed light on similar apps) and on future challenges to the FCC rulings:

  1. Skype: Does Net neutrality protect consumers on both wireless- and fixed-broadband connections without restrictions?
  2. Netflix: Do the Net neutrality rules protect consumers' access to Netflix on both fixed-broadband and wireless networks?
  3. The tone of your article gives the impression that the FCC's authority will likely be challenged once again, like it was in the Comcast case. What's the likelihood the FCC will be found to lack authority over the Internet in regard to these recent rulings?

I know what has been proposed isn't perfect, but it's a starting point, from my perspective.

Thank you for your consideration in responding.

Dear Brad,
As I explained in my article earlier this week, after the rules were adopted, and in my interview with Robert Siegel on NPR's "All Things Considered", the rules just adopted by the FCC are preventative. They have no effect on consumers today, but they protect them from hypothetical scenarios that could take place in the future.

In a nutshell, the purpose of the rules is to make sure fixed-broadband and wireless-broadband service providers do not favor their own traffic and services over a competitors' traffic and services.

Though the FCC set out to draft a simple set of Internet "rules of the road," what it ended up with is a somewhat complex set of regulations in a 194-page document. What makes the rules confusing from a consumer's point of view is the fact that they apply differently to services and applications on fixed-broadband networks versus wireless networks.

In other words, in some cases, even though the applications may be exactly the same, they could be treated differently on a fixed-broadband connection versus wireless.

The examples you chose are good ones to illustrate how the application of these rules may differ depending on which network is used.

In the case of Skype, neither your fixed-broadband provider nor your wireless-phone carrier will be able to block Skype or services like Skype. Skype is a voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, application that uses a broadband Internet connection to let consumers make free or low-cost phone calls over the Net. While fixed-broadband providers haven't done anything in the past to specifically block or degrade Skype traffic on their networks, wireless-service providers have resisted Skype and other VoIP applications.

For example, in early 2009, an AT&T executive told USA Today that his company has the right to prevent Skype from being used on the iPhone and other smartphones because Skype is a service that competes with AT&T's voice service. AT&T eventually relented and said it would support VoIP services starting in October 2009. But there was also a dustup over the use of Google Voice on the iPhone. AT&T and Apple were pointing the finger at each other to explain why the application wasn't being approved for the iPhone's App Store. Google Voice appeared in the App Store only last month.

The FCC looked into both of these matters. And in the new rules it adopted, sided with Skype and other VoIP providers, specifically stating that mobile wireless providers can't block "applications that compete with the provider's" own voice or video telephony services.

So in the case of Skype, because it's an application that competes against a wireless operator's voice telephony service, it's treated the same as the service offered over your home cable modem setup. Operators can't block or degrade the traffic.

The situation is slightly different for Netflix. According to the new FCC rules, Netflix could be treated differently by the broadband provider depending on whether a fixed or wireless connection is used.

On a fixed network, the Net neutrality rules protect all legal streaming video services, such as Netflix--broadband providers are prohibited from blocking or degrading these services. Fixed-broadband providers are also prohibited from unreasonable traffic discrimination on their networks. So again, the Netflix service is protected.

This isn't the case on a wireless network. For one, the nondiscrimination clause doesn't apply to wireless broadband networks at all. And two, the way I understand these rules, wireless operators are prohibited only from blocking voice and video telephony services. Netflix is a video service, but it's not a video chat service. Therefore, a carrier could refuse to allow such a service or application on its network.

The FCC made a clear distinction in its rules between fixed-broadband and wireless networks. It said it recognized that the two types of networks are different and that wireless networks are more constrained in terms of bandwidth. Therefore, under the new rules, a narrower set of applications is offered protection on wireless networks.

Wireless operators have already banned certain streaming video services from their networks. Apple offers a Netflix app for the iPhone and iPad in its App Store, but for several months it refused to allow the Slingbox service into the store. Slingbox redirects broadcast TV signals onto the Internet. Eventually, Slingbox worked with AT&T, and Apple and came up with a mobile app for the iPhone that both Apple and AT&T found acceptable.

Though AT&T and other wireless operators allow Slingbox and Netflix applications on their networks today, there's nothing in the FCC rules that could stop them from refusing to offer these streaming video services tomorrow.

As for your final question, about the FCC's authority being questioned, I simply don't know the answer yet. I'm fairly certain there will be legal challenges to these new rules at some point. When it will happen is uncertain. My guess is that the cases, when and if they are filed, could take years to resolve.

In the meantime, Congress may step in to clarify the FCC's authority. But that would also be a lengthy process. The agency has also not closed the door entirely on reclassifying broadband networks so that some traditional telephony regulations apply.

FCC supporters argue that the federal court's ruling in the Comcast case was based on a narrow set of facts specific to that case. They claim that the court was not trying to strip the FCC of its authority, but to simply state that in this particular case the commission did not have the authority to do what it did. One thing is clear, the final FCC vote may be over, but the issue is very much alive and will continue to be debated for some time.

Will a Verizon iPhone be compatible with Sprint?

Dear Maggie,
If Verizon does get the iPhone, will I be able to use it on Sprint because both Sprint and Verizon are CDMA networks?


Dear Trey,
I responded to a similar question a couple of weeks ago. The short answer is no. When the iPhone eventually comes to Verizon Wireless, it will work only on Verizon's network. You're correct that Verizon and Sprint Nextel are both CDMA carriers, but Verizon CDMA phones can't be used on Sprint's network, and vice versa.

It is confusing because the AT&T iPhone can be unlocked and used on a different GSM network. The reason this can be done on a GSM network is because these phones use SIM cards. The SIM provides the service from a particular carrier, and when you want to use a different carrier you can simply swap out the card on an unlocked phone and replace it with a SIM card from a different carrier.

Unfortunately, CDMA phones don't use SIM cards. Instead, even though they use the same cellular technology, the phones used on these networks are programmed for that specific network.

So the only way to use the cellular radio on an iPhone on the Sprint network is if Sprint strikes a deal to offer the iPhone.

Replacing a prepaid AT&T GoPhone

Dear Maggie,
I bought my father an AT&T GoPhone prepaid phone three years ago for Christmas. He doesn't use the phone often, so I can put $100 worth of service on the phone for him and it lasts him practically the whole year. He is very pleased with the service and would like to continue using it. But now he is having problems with his phone. The "6" isn't working anymore. I want to get him a new phone this year for Christmas, but he wants to keep his existing GoPhone number. Can I buy him a new phone for the prepaid service without losing his number? And how can I transfer all his contacts from the old phone to the new phone?

Thanks and Merry Christmas,

Dear Michelle,
You're in luck. Getting your dad a new phone for his prepaid service is easy. Because AT&T is a GSM carrier that uses SIM cards, you can put his GoPhone SIM card in any AT&T phone, and his existing prepaid account--including the phone number and minutes on that account--should be activated.

If all you need is another basic phone, I'd suggest getting another GoPhone. You could get him any AT&T phone, but because he isn't signing a two-year contract with AT&T, he will have to pay full retail price for the phone. The GoPhones are usually priced very inexpensively: $50 and less for the most basic devices. Phones offered as part of a two-year contract are generally priced at $100 or more retail.

As for transferring his contacts to the new phone, this process is also very easy. The reason is simple: contacts can be stored on the SIM card, which means all he has to do is swap out the new SIM card and replace it with the SIM from the old phone, and his contacts should be accessible. If his address book and contacts are already saved to his SIM card, this is a piece of cake. If the contacts are not already saved on the SIM, it's easy to go into the setting menu and copy them to the SIM card.

I hope this helps and Happy Holidays to you and everyone else reading the Ask Maggie column.