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Teacher’s Pet? Sprint bows to Title II, strands rivals in no man’s land


via Flickr © William Arthur Fine Stationery (CC BY-ND 2.0)

If there’s a tide operating on the arguments swirling around the issue of network neutrality in the US, then this week it feels like its flowing strongly in favour of the pros. Sprint yesterday publicly wrote to the FCC to effectively break ranks with the other mobile network big boys - AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile - to admit that it wasn’t overly bothered by the prospect of Title II regulation…  as long as it allowed for differentiated services.  Sprint Chief Technology Officer, Stephen Bye,  wrote:  "light touch" application of common carrier rules won't change how Sprint invests in its networks.

"Regardless of the legal grounds proposed,” continued Bye, “Sprint has emphasized repeatedly that net neutrality rules must give mobile carriers the flexibility to manage our networks and to differentiate our services in the market. With that said, Sprint does not believe that a light touch application of Title II, including appropriate forbearance, would harm the continued investment in, and deployment of, mobile broadband services."

So Sprint is apparently contradicting the claims made on behalf of US carriers (if, often, not actually by them), that treating broadband as a common carrier service (like voice) would inevitably harm investment since it would unnecessarily tie ISPs up in antiquated rules and regulations (“rules that were invented in 1935”), generate extra costs and generally just harden the business arteries to the detriment of the entire industry and (therefore) the US and global economies.  Wow..  powerful juju.

Sprint’s analysis, on the other hand, is that Title II, applied properly with a light touch, a skip, a jump and a smile, wouldn’t mean much at all. Further analysis might even reveal it to have some advantages, especially for a struggling carrier like Sprint who could find the playing field tilted (if it’s tilted at all) slightly back in its favour.

True, both Verizon and AT&T have rowed back on some of their more ‘shoot from the hip’ statements on the issue: notably AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson, who said he was putting investment on hold because of the Title II threat (then had his words ‘clarified’), and then the admission from Verizon CFO, Francis Shammo, who said  his company wouldn’t change its current infrastructure investment plans either.  

In both cases, though, while their specific investments were not threatened, the parties still felt the general ‘climate’ for investment would be very badly hit by Title II. Sprint, on the other hand, appears to have come clean.

With Sprint turning coat and the likes of Google Fiber pointing out the real competitive advantages that might accrue to an ISP-only network builder if it could enjoy the rights of access to infrastructure that Title II telcos enjoy, it seems that the ‘no’ camp arguments are looking increasingly threadbare by the day.  Only the partisan elements in Congress - who seem to oppose net neutrality simply because Obama is for it - may soon be left banging the drum.

The irony about this whole neutrality saga is that the ‘rule-making’ on net neutrality that the FCC set in train back in 2010, and which was overturned in a court challenge by Verizon, now looks pretty-much like the Title II regulation proposed by Obama and the FCC - that  ISPs, while categorised as Title II common carriers,  - would be subject to sweeping forbearance for most of the Title II regulation as it relates to voice services.

What’s proposed is actually a couple of pages of ‘don’ts’ looking very much like both the original rules, the draft European legislation currently being mulled somewhere inside the European Commission, and even the legislation that’s already been passed by the likes of The Netherlands and Slovenia.

Let’s hope the European Commission pays attention and doesn’t try to gut the net neutrality protections offered by the European Parliament.

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