Opinion: Why carriers must carry

It's Net neutrality wireless style

An issue like abortion can get political hackles up, no matter which side you're on. Like so many debates in modern America, this one simply has no resolution and likely never will. I was active in local politics for many years, including serving in elective office, but stopped when I realized I could argue both sides of a number of issues equally well. The last thing we need is another wishy-washy politician. Taking a stand is essential in politics, and that's also the case if you happen to be an analyst. If you can't do that, you're not a leader. A politician, maybe, but not a leader.

But one topic I can take a stand on is the role of carriers -- wired, wireless or otherwise. My stand is that carriers must carry. That's their primary purpose. They own highways. They can most certainly charge a toll for using said highway, but they absolutely may not decide what traffic rolls over their wires or airwaves. They can prioritize traffic based on price, but they absolutely cannot restrict a vehicle that meets the technical specifications of their road, nor its cargo. At least, that's the way it should be.

Some people call this Net neutrality, although the whole Net neutrality argument is somewhat larger in scope. At least with respect to the airwaves, which the people clearly own and license to carriers, there can be no restrictions on how the end user ultimately takes advantage of the facilities provided by a carrier -- apart, of course, from using these facilities to commit a crime. Again, that's how it should be.

The reality is often different. Take the recent situation involving the issue of abortion and Verizon Wireless. In a story published in The New York Times, Verizon was quoted as saying it has the right to block "controversial or unsavory" text messages on its network -- in this case, said messages belonging to a list maintained by Naral Pro-Choice America.

Again, no matter how you feel about abortion, all Verizon was being asked to do was allow its subscribers to use its network to receive text messages from this organization. Verizon's rational in blocking access here was that the mere possibility of receiving such messages might offend some of its subscribers, who, of course, would never see such messages unless they subscribed.

Perhaps oddly, Verizon was well within its rights to take the position it did. Wireless carriers and those not legally defined as common carriers can decide what to carry; just call your cable TV company if you want to see this in action. They'll even quote the First Amendment, although I'm not sure why the First Amendment applies to corporations.

To cut to the chase here, Verizon did realize the error of its ways and reversed its decision the next day, in no small part due to the firestorm of protest resulting from the original decision. But the undone damage must serve as a cautionary note: Carriers must carry. That's not yet the law regarding cellular networks, but it needs to be. We all have the right to be offended; that's as it should be in a free, democratic country. But we also have the right to receive legal information and communications, and the carriers must never be allowed to stand in the way. All carriers of any form offering communications services to the general public must be subject to these rules. This will also prevent subscribers from jumping to another carrier when they're offended, since other carriers will be subject to the same rules. This is thus good policy and good business.

We live, thankfully, in a country where political debate should (and must) be part of the very fabric of our lives. Politics is, after all, about deciding what our very relationships with one another, to say nothing of with the government, are going to be. We cannot get to the resolution of any debate without communication, and that's the business the carriers are in. They must not be able to decide what messages are carried on their networks, and they do not get to decide what is offensive. If we allow that, we are truly, as a nation, lost.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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