Legislating Openness in Mobility
A proposed law would require mobile operators to disclose cost, performance, and reliability details about their 4G network services.
In a noble if flawed attempt to bring some degree of honesty to the mobile operators, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) has proposed a new law titled the "Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act" that would require mobile operators to disclose cost, performance, and reliability details about their 4G network services. Needless to say, transparency is not high on the priority list of the mobile operators, and the CTIA--The Wireless Association--has replied, "We are concerned that the bill proposes to add a new layer of regulation to a new and exciting set of services, while ignoring the fact that wireless is an inherently complex and dynamic environment in which network speeds can vary depending on a wide variety of factors."
Out of the box, Rep. Eshoo's proposed law would require mobile operators to spell out "the guaranteed minimum transmit and receive data rates...to and from on-network hosts for the service," To qualify, that minimum data rate would have to be available "for a percentage of the time in a calendar month", which percentage would be specified by the FCC.
The trouble with that is that mobile networks are immense undertakings covering thousands of square miles with hundreds of thousands of base stations, complicated sharing mechanisms and relying on radio technologies that are fundamentally unpredictable to begin with. If that minimum would have to be met in every square centimeter of the operator’s network, I'm afraid the number would be depressingly low.
However, it wouldn't be very enlightening either. Cellular data services use shared channels, and every user in a cell or a sector (i.e. a cell coverage area is often divided into two or three "sectors") is sharing that channel. Further complicating the picture is the fact that users with stronger signals operate at higher data rates and the operators can make all sorts of adjustments in the scheduling algorithms (i.e. the protocol that determines who gets to send when) to optimize the overall performance. To get an idea of how complex a picture this really is, take a look at this article from PC World--and even that is not really comprehensive.
Under the bill, the operators would also have to publish a "reliability rating" for their services, and the FCC would specify the method for determining the rating. Further, the operators would have to disclose price and volume for their flat rate plans and disclose what 4G technology the consumer is getting (e.g. LTE or WiMAX), along with a map of the coverage area.
One provision that will most certainly set off a ruckus is the requirement to disclose "any business practices or technical mechanisms employed by the service provider, other than standard best-effort delivery, that allocate capacity or prioritize traffic differently on the basis of the source of the applications, content, or services." This would include "any limits or prohibition" on the use of various applications or services, and any "traffic shaping or throttling mechanisms that affect the service as a result of exceeding certain usage limits."
The mobile operators dodged the bullet when they were explicitly exempted from the Net Neutrality rules, and this would seemingly drag them right back into it. One idea that is regularly proposed for reducing mobile voice costs is to utilize VoIP over the 3G/4G data service as an alternative to the operators’ traditional cents-per-minute circuit switched voice service. With 4G, all traffic will eventually go VoIP, but the operators have been close-lipped about how 4G would be priced or even if we'd have traditional "voice" plans as we do today. While VoIP over 3G data is rarely used today, if it were to impact service revenues, you can be fairly sure the operators would at least consider taking steps to degrade the performance to those voice streams. That’s not the kind of information they’ll want to release.
Better consumer protection is long overdue in the mobile service business, but I don't think this bill is the right path. Mobile networks are simply too large and complex to characterize with one or two simple numbers. However, I do applaud Rep. Eshoo putting some ideas on the table. It is virtually impossible to figure out how many bytes it takes to send a text, a picture, download a song or a web page or just about anything else you’d do with your phone. We have not found the mobile operators to be the most consumer-friendly organizations to deal with, so anything that would start to turn that around would be welcome.
In the meantime, you can expect the CTIA's PR and lobbying groups to shift into high gear over this.