03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Walking the Talk on Net Neutrality: An Engineering Perspective

With public comments expected today, the debate within the Federal Communications Commission regarding the application of "net neutrality" regulations to America's wired and wireless networks is entering the homestretch. To remind, in 2005, the FCC outlined four principles which address the issue of net neutrality on wired networks. Now, for the first time, the FCC is considering whether to apply these principles and potential additional regulations to wireless networks.

In past columns, I've discussed some areas for policymakers to consider when deciding the issue of net neutrality. However, beyond the important political and policy question of, 'Should we apply these standards?' lurks the fundamental and very practical question of 'Can we apply these standards?' - without adverse effects to current and future wireless innovation.

A new report from Rysavy Research and Mobile Future explores these questions from an engineering perspective and provides a technical basis for understanding the impact that certain net neutrality regulatory proposals will have on the nation's wireless networks and the consumers who rely on them.

One of the more overlooked aspects of the net neutrality debate is the fundamental difference between wired and wireless networks. While mobile broadband offers tremendous opportunities for consumers, today's most powerful wide-area wireless networks have significantly less capacity than today's wireline networks. With increasing mobile demand, wireless network management is especially critical to ensure the consumer experience.

Data consumption over wireless networks is increasing at exponential rates. Cisco projects mobile broadband traffic will grow at over 100% compound annual growth. These exponential increases are due to two factors. One is that users across the board are increasing their wireless data consumption, but the other, more concerning trend is that a small percentage of users are consuming a disproportionate amount of traffic. Cisco recently documented that in Q3 of 2009, the top 1% of Internet connections consumed over 20% of traffic and the top 10% consumed 60% of the traffic.

As our wireless devices deliver more innovative services each day, the Commission and many others in the wireless sector are looking for ways to access more spectrum for commercial use. Some are asking that 800 MHz to 1 GHz of additional spectrum be made available to commercial operators. However, it is highly unlikely that this much new spectrum can be made available any time soon with some analysts estimating that it takes seven to ten years to procure spectrum for wireless use.

What does all this mean for wireless networks? With data-limited capacity on current networks, with data usage growing exponentially, with spectrum relief potentially years away, with networks already pushed to capacity under the weight of subscriber demands, there is only one way for the industry to move forward: companies and their engineers must have the flexibility to manage their networks and policies must allow for the dynamic, real-time allocation of existing capacity.

The success of the mobile-broadband industry is a highlight of the nation's economy and a model of innovation. As our nation considers whether to embark on a new course of policymaking regarding the Internet, we urge the Commission to think long and hard about the logistical, operational and engineering realities involved before applying net neutrality regulations to wireless networks.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration.