If you are a regular reader of this blog, there is a good chance that you are the type of person who gets questions about choosing cell phones from family, friends, and when you go to cocktail parties. People probably ask for your opinion about this phone or that, or the merits of one carrier vs. another.
In the next few weeks you are probably going to be getting new questions about networks, specifically about 3G vs. 4G. If you really want to blow the mind of the person asking you the question, you can tell that it may not matter.
“You see,” you can tell them as you sip your cocktail and stroke your chin thoughtfully “2G, 3G, 4G, all that tells you is how information gets from your phone to the cell tower. The interesting question [n.b. feel free to call this ‘the real question’ if you prefer] is what happens once the information gets to the tower.”
The dirty secret of the cell phone industry is that most of the towers aren’t connected to some fancy high-speed broadband line. Instead, all too often the towers have a measly T1 line to share between everyone connected to the tower. You could give carriers all of the spectrum under the sun, pairing it with some sort of mystical 8G technology, and it wouldn’t matter. There would still be a bottleneck between the tower and the wider Internet holding everyone up. In fact, this bottleneck is the focus of the NoChokePoints coalition, of which Public Knowledge is a member.
Of course, there are faster networks that carriers could plug their networks into. Sometimes, and this is especially true with the larger carriers, it is just a matter of the carriers bothering to pay to upgrade the equipment at the tower. After all, Verizon and AT&T have networks running all over the country. That does not mean that they want to pay to upgrade their networks, but at least the decision is within their control.
Other times, and this is especially true of regional or smaller competitive carriers, the company that owns the tower does not own a parallel physical network. In those cases the smaller companies have to negotiate with their larger competitors to get access to the larger competitors’ network. Believe it or not, this dynamic does not always lead to the smaller carrier paying what might be called “just and reasonable” rates to its larger competitor.
In order to avoid forcing every smaller carrier to build a redundant network, while at the same time recognizing that it is important to compensate the larger carriers for building their networks, the FCC has been looking into this issue (which goes by the wonky name “Special Access”). The FCC is looking for ways for competitive carriers to pay reasonable rates for access to existing networks. After all, until carriers have an efficient way to move data off of cell towers and onto the Internet, there is real threat that spectrum protocols will become window dressing.
The Gs get all of the attention, but it may be Special Access, the ability to connect those towers to the Internet, that will really determine how fast your friend’s fancy new phone can stream Lady Gaga videos.