Net Neutrality and WISPs

By Brian Hinman

Having just returned from Washington DC to promote Mimosa’s plan to open the 10 GHz band for fixed broadband operations in the US, I am struck by how relevant the wireless Internet service provider (WISP) industry is to the broader storm of net neutrality currently raging in the United States. As I see the situation today, we have a duopoly in the access market between DSL and cable providers. Content providers such as Netflix are alleging discriminatory practices with regard to passing their traffic to end users. Consumer advocacy groups are outraged by the idea of a content “fast lane.” And the spectre of heavy-handed government regulation looms in a misguided effort to preserve net neutrality. While my colleagues and I fully support the values of the Open Internet, we envision a market-based solution, in which invigorated competition from WISPs can solve the Internet delivery problems that regulation cannot.

As those of us in the industry know, today’s WISPs thrive in rural areas and the developing world, and yet they face real challenges in markets where cable and DSL providers dominate. In regions where alternative Internet access is limited to either geosynchronous satellite service or dial-up modem access, and in areas where DSL and cable providers have infrastructure gaps, WISPs can and do offer a competitive user experience. Head-to-head against DSL and cable providers, however, WISPs have traditionally struggled with client capacity, bandwidth per client, and network reliability. Thus, we see a “détente” between the big ISPs in the urban and suburban areas, and the WISPs in the rural and underdeveloped markets.

We started Mimosa in part to solve the three biggest limitations of existing WISP networks: client capacity, bandwidth per client, and network reliability. The next generation of Wi-Fi chips, and in particular those with multi-user MIMO capability, will enable client capacity and bandwidth per client that is an order of magnitude greater than what is available today. We also believe that advanced spectrum scanning and cloud-based management techniques can greatly improve reliability in bands shared with indoor Wi-Fi services. That said, opening additional spectrum that is less congested and lightly licensed would improve reliability and increase the network capacity. Our petition to the FCC to open the 10 GHz band is specifically motivated by this agenda.We strongly believe that with the new MIMO technology and 450 MHz of greenfield 10 GHz spectrum, WISPs can become robust competitors to both cable and DSL providers in the US. If we’re right, future WISPs will be very profitable offering a straight-forward “fat pipe” service, avoiding the economic necessity of bundling content or gouging content providers to create “fast lanes.” Contending with this new breed of WISPs, DSL and cable providers will be forced to offer competitive services, or lose subscribers. Through this market economy for Internet access, government regulation to protect openness should be unnecessary.

Unfortunately, even if the FCC were to issue an NPRM for the 10 GHz band tomorrow, it could be three to five years before the scale of WISP operations begins to put pressure on the DSL and cable providers. In the meantime, challenges to net neutrality and the resulting public outcry are forcing Congress and the FCC to consider draconian measures to solve the problem. Some legislators have stated their belief that ISPs should be regulated as Common Carriers under Title II provisions of the Communications Act of 1934. Among other requirements, Title II includes provisions for Universal Service and regulated pricing, making it onerous for small-business WISPs to comply. While the goal of bringing the Internet to all Americans at a fair price is a noble one, the unintended consequences of heavy-handed regulations cannot be ignored. Should WISPs become subject to Title II regulatory oversight, the industry may fail before it has a fair chance to offer credible competition to cable and DSL providers.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s office is exploring a range of possible solutions for net neutrality. A brief paragraph under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 may be the basis for future rulemaking. On May 15th, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, soliciting public comment on how best to protect and promote Internet openness. With the future of our industry at stake, we encourage our customers and partners to provide input to the FCC before July 15th, the end of the comment period. As one voice in this debate, Mimosa believes that the FCC and Congress should tread lightly on regulatory oversight now. Preserving long-term competition for broadband access is the key to preserving Internet openness in the future.