Broadband Over Cellphones: What does it mean for New Yorkers?

The recent Blackberry outage demonstrated the sometimes painful reliance New Yorkers have on their cell phones. But for people whose only Internet access comes from their mobile device, the everyday restrictions on their access are a much bigger problem. On Monday, there are two opportunities – one local for New Yorkers, the other federal – to do something about this.

I don’t own a “Crackberry” (though I do go online with my cellphone) so I had to learn about the outage from the morning news shows. The “reporters” for those shows interviewed white men in suits almost exclusively. I don’t know if they thought those were the only people who own Blackberrys or those were the only Blackberry owners they could find at 7am, but that’s all we heard from.

That’s the stereotypical mobile broadband user: male, white, wealthy, and high tech, using the mobile device as a supplement to one or more computers in his life (like me). For those folks, having one of their access devices be severely limited is not such a huge deal (though at least one of them apparently missed an email telling him a meeting had been canceled, according to news reports on the Blackberry outage).

Some Blackberry users don’t fit that profile. In my capacity as Policy Director of People’s Production House, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with folks at the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) and talk about the way they use computers and the Internet.

They have Verizon DSL in their office and about 6 working computers. Very few of the members have computers and Internet access at home, though, so they were having a hard time coordinating meetings and other activities over email. A few months ago, the Director of the organization realized that a number of people had snazzy cell phones and decided to buy Blackberrys for the core organizers. Since then, internal communication has been much smoother.

Of the three people I spoke with who were using the new devices, everyone had trouble managing their inbox on it and one person said she struggled with the size of the screen, but at least one person used it as his primary device for accessing the Internet. He still used the desktop computer, but only because the Blackberry did not allow him to delete emails in bulk or do meaningful research.

Everyone in the discussion said people they knew were more likely to have a cell phone than a computer, especially if they did not have kids in school. This was true even though people cited the monthly fees of Internet access as the main barrier to having that service at home. People simply find a cell phone a more critical and justifiable expense.

One benefit of the Blackberry over the computer is that it’s very much yours. You can spend time with it to figure it out (no one used the manual) and customize it. Computers in the office are shared, as are computers at home for many people.

This suggests that Internet-enabled cell phones might be an important component of a strategy to bridge the digital divide. However, if your Blackberry is your primary, rather than a supplementary source of Internet access, then the outage is a big deal. But an even bigger problem is that the Internet experience on a cell phone is in general way more limited than on a regular computer.

I’ll use my personal experience as an example. When I read the news online, I go to sites like NYC Indymedia,, Google News, and BBC. Cursor and Google are collections of off-site links and NYC Indymedia syndicates a number of local blogs and websites, so I wind up all over the Web. When I check the news on my phone, I am presented with a list of sources:

  1. PictureCast
  3. USA Today
  4. Reuters
  5. New York Times
  7. Local TV News
  8. Baltimore Sun
  9. Help

While cable TV is a good metaphor for what the World Wide Web would be like without net neutrality, cell phones are better. Imagine if you took your laptop online and all you saw was a list like the one above.

It doesn’t have to be that way with cell phones. Last month I attended a panel discussion at New America Foundation called, “Wireless Net Neutrality: Should Carterfone and Broadband Nondiscrimination Rules Apply to Cellular?” The Carterfone rule created the wall jack for your phone. Before it, AT&T hardwired the phone line straight into the device. You even had to pay the phone company a monthly fee to use their equipment. And when answering machines were first introduced they were prohibited by the phone companies. They said plugging an unauthorized device into their network would cause oceans of interference, or something like that.

I don’t know much about how cellular got an exemption from those open access rules, but that exemption is definitely outdated. Tim Wu paints a compelling picture of an oligopoly stifling innovation at the expense of the consumer.

Here’s a basic principle of how our communications industry should be regulated: Device, content or applications, and connectivity should all be separate and should interact based on open standards. That’s basically the way the Internet became awesome (Microsoft browser bundling and AOL home pages notwithstanding) and those same rules should apply to cable television and cellular telephony.

There are two opportunities on Monday to make this statement to people who might listen and be able to do something about it. The first is a New York City Council hearing on a net neutrality resolution:


Next Monday, April 30 at 1 PM in the Council Chambers of City Hall, an oversight hearing will be held with the Committee on Technology in Government on the topic of “Establishing Strong Network Neutrality Principles in Order to Protect the Internet.”  The hearing will focus on Resolution No. 712, which was introduced in the City Council in February 2007.  Sponsored by Council Member Gale Brewer, Res. 712 calls upon the United States Congress “to codify strong network neutrality principles in order to insure that the Internet will continue to foster innovation, increase competition, and spur economic growth as well as making the Internet faster and more affordable for all.”  The Committee is interested in hearing testimony on what network neutrality entails, community concerns regarding its use, and the future of the Internet without protections for network neutrality.  Industry representatives from Google, Time Warner, Cablevision and Verizon as well as experts and advocacy organizations have been invited to testify.

If you are interested in testifying at this hearing, please contact Jeff Baker (212-788-9193) or Colleen Pagter (212-788-9085).

The second involves a petition to the FCC from Skype. Skype was represented on that panel at New America last month. They want people to be able to use any application they want (including Skype’s Voice Over IP service, of course) on their cell phones. Comments on this proceeding are due by Monday, April 30.

I plan to formulate the above ideas into testimony for the City Council hearing. I hope to submit them as comments to the FCC, as well. If we crack open the cell phones, they could actually become a meaningful alternative to other Internet access devices. They certainly would become less of a ripoff. (Does anyone know anyone who isn’t getting ripped off by their cellular service provider?)

One last note on an already long post, just because you know I can’t talk about net neutrality without talking about open access: There is another proceeding at the FCC relating to an upcoming spectrum auction (kind of like giving ANWR to oil companies, but in the air all around you). The relevant point is that a public interest spectrum coalition (supported by The Ethos Group) has made progress on including an open access provision in the spectrum license. They deserve our thanks for that. If you want more info on it, follow the links in this paragraph.

The main point, just to recap, is that while we push for net neutrality, we need to be clear that net neutrality does not go far enough if we want to expand meaningful access to the Internet. We need open access and open standards on all of our devices.


  1. “cable TV is a good metaphor for what the World Wide Web would be like without net neutrality, cell phones are better”

    I have to disagree with that. This is only true if you accept the most alarmist version of what would happen if the Dorgan-Snowe bill didn’t pass. Net neutrality legislation as proposed currently would bar ISPs from selling faster access to paying companies that is virtually indistinguishable from what Akamai already provides.

    Nobody’s trying to segment off the Internet into little fiefdoms. I work with Hands Off the Internet coalition, which opposes that bill and does include some ISPs in the membership. And I have to ask, why would AT&T (member) or Verizon (non-member) want to make a primary business (Internet service) less attractive to boost a secondary business they haven’t even really got into yet (on demand video)?

  2. Little fiefdoms would be better than what the phone companies want to do (run the whole thing).

    For at least 10 years, since the Internet was privatized, it has been one big wide open land rush. Except the persistence of a digital divide and the color of corporate board rooms suggests that it was more wide open for some than for others. If we take away net neutrality, which prohibits discrimination against content on the Internet, those folks will have an even harder hill to climb to get their piece of the online world.

    It’s not surprising that your (member) and (non-member), now that they have gotten themselves into a good spot, want to change the rules to lock their advantage in place. That’s fine – being a big telecommunications corporation means being greedy, I understand that.

    The rest of us believe we should at the very least let everyone keep playing by the same rules. If we are going to start changing the rules to favor one side or the other, it should be to make it easier for new people to get in on the Internet, not harder.

  3. 3G is the third generation of mobile phone standards and technology, superseding 2G. It is based on the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) family of standards under the International Mobile Telecommunications programme, IMT-2000.

    3G technologies enable network operators to offer users a wider range of more advanced services while achieving greater network capacity through improved spectral efficiency. Services include wide-area wireless voice telephony, video calls, and broadband wireless data, all in a mobile environment. Additional features also include HSPA data transmission capabilities able to deliver speeds up to 14.4Mbit/s on the downlink and 5.8Mbit/s on the uplink.

    Unlike IEEE 802.11 networks, 3G networks are wide area cellular telephone networks which evolved to incorporate high-speed internet access and video telephony. IEEE 802.11 (common names Wi-Fi or WLAN) networks are short range, high-bandwidth networks primarily developed for data.

  4. EVDO has a theoretical throughput of 2.4 megabits per second. This is as fast as many residential DSL and cable broadband connections currently available in the United States. Qualcomm has produced impressive demonstrations of EVDO’s capabilities; in one, a video conference was conducted with a participant traveling in a car at 60 miles per hour (96 km/hour). In another demonstration, a phone call was placed from a bullet train moving in excess of 150 miles per hour (240 km/hour)

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