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Obama Gives Telecom a Net Neutrality Valentine's Present

In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama set wireless broadband as a priority. During a trip to Marquette, Michigan, the President proposed investing $5 billion in wireless broadband to extend high speed Internet access to rural areas.

Given some big hurdles, the plan as hatched may never happen. But if it does, it will play into the way cable companies and carriers have helped set the administration's views of net neutrality. Suddenly an exemption for wireless broadband will have ramifications beyond how much you might have to pay to watch a movie on your smartphone.

At issue is how the Federal Communications Commission structured its proposed net neutrality plan. Currently, it calls for virtually no restrictions on wireless broadband other than a call for transparency (whatever that ends up meaning).

From the beginning, the problem has been how one defines wireless. Many have blithely assumed that it referred mostly to smartphones. But as I mentioned in December, the concept is potentially much broader:

Over-the-air deliver of broadband to fixed locations is wireless. If a carrier owns Internet hotspots that use Wi-Fi, couldn't that be called wireless? Essentially, that is no different from a cell tower. How much of a wireless link is necessary to fall under wireless Internet access? What if the carrier provides the Wi-Fi router to someone's home? Is that wireless Internet access? Would a bounce off a satellite change an otherwise wired connection to wireless?
Surely fixed location wireless would have the easiest time of expanding the exemption. After all, it really is the same essential technology, if you don't count the lack of moving devices. When the rules say "wireless," how does this not fit?

And that's a big foot in the door for carriers to gain broader abilities to control data flow in their financial interest. First rural areas, and then fixed wireless in suburbs and, finally, urban areas to expand access, as the technology becomes a major part of the evolving Internet infrastructure.

Not that either the Obama administration or the FCC will have an easy time making any of this stick. Both Verizon (VZ) and wireless service operator MetroPCS Communications (PCS) are in court suing over the FCC's rules. Republicans in general are unfriendly to net neutrality and House Republicans have already complained about Obama's new spending proposal.

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Image: morgueFile user jusben.