If you've been watching the blogosphere over the last few days, you might have seen an article or two about a "complaint" filed with the FCC over Verizon's block on tethering applications in the Android Market.
The complainant's argument goes something like this: Verizon purchased the 700MHz spectrum ("block C" of the spectrum) back in 2007, and that spectrum is now used by Verizon for its 4G LTE service. That purchase, ala Google and other net neutrality lobbyists, came with one seemingly large caveat: Verizon (or AT&T, or anyone who bought in that spectrum) could not "deny, limit, or restrict" the phones using that spectrum in particular ways: phones must be carrier unlocked, able to access all parts of the web, and run any software. At least, in theory. If you want it straight from the source, here's Free Press's (the consumer advocacy group filing the complaint) interpretation of things:
As a condition of Verizon's license for the C Block of the upper 700 MHz block, Verizon and similar broadband providers using the spectrum are not permitted to “deny, limit, or restrict” the ability of their customers to use the applications or devices of their choosing. Recent reports reveal that Verizon has been doing just that by asking Google to disable tethering applications in the Android Market. Tethering applications, which allow users to make their phones into mobile hot-spots, implicate both the customers' ability to use both the applications and devices of their choice.
These conditions were called "Carterfone protections," and since day one they have been roundly (and rightly) criticized as damn near useless in actually effectuating their purpose. Here's what Susan P. Crawford (a major supporter of net neutrality) had to say about them:
The no-locking, no-blocking requirements are hedged in by substantial limitations: the winning licensee will be able to lock and block devices and applications as long as they can show that their actions are related to "reasonable network management and protection," or "compliance with applicable regulatory requirements." In other words, as long as the discrimination can be shown to be connected (however indirectly) to some vision of 'network management,' it will be permitted." (Emphasis ours)
Now, how do these loopholes reconcile with the neutrality provisions cited by Free Press? They don't, really. Actually, they all but cancel out the Carterfone protections. A carrier merely has to present the argument to the FCC that tethering (or any software/hardware modification) interferes with or harms the carrier's network management or security efforts, and provide some rudimentary vehicle for that argument - there is no requirement of proof.
Tethering apps don't stand a chance against these exceptions to the rule, particularly in Verizon's case. With the vast majority of its smartphone customers currently on unlimited data plans, there's even a hint of merit in Verizon's argument that it needs to control access to tethering to prevent end-user abuse of that "unlimited" data, even if that abuse is only committed by a very small number of individuals. That argument alone is a "winner." In the future, though, Verizon won't have unlimited data, so how's that going to work?
For tiered data plans, you might think things would get a little hazier, but "network security and management" provides another easy out - unauthorized tethering allows unauthorized devices (eg, your laptop) to access Verizon's network. Voila. It could also just as easily be argued that unauthorized tethering software could cause people to leave their phones with unsecure hotspots open, exposing Verizon's network (and that somehow the carrier tethering option stops that), or something else utterly unlikely. Basically, any argument Verizon could make that leads to the statement "... and this prevents us from operating and/or securing our network exactly how we want to" will hold water.
And the same points can be used against rooting, unlocking, or using custom software. It's a little depressing, really. But it's the present reality of the way the rules are written.
These arguments sound ridiculous and dodgy to us, but the FCC will probably eat them up, because they're all certainly possible scenarios. And then there's the millions the carriers spent in lobbying to get those loophole provisions worded just as they wanted them.
Is Verizon being kind of shady about this whole affair? Yep, and that's not cool. Are they within their rights to do it? Most likely.
Quotes from DSLReports