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Automakers and Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality refers to the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should allow equal access to all web content. Under the FCC Open Internet Order 2010, all ISPs are banned from blocking users’ access to websites. While landline ISPs are not allowed to block or “unreasonably discriminate” against user applications, wireless carriers have no such anti-discrimination rules but are banned from blocking applications that compete with their own voice or video calling services.

In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the FCC’s 2010 version of the net neutrality rules, saying that the FCC “had failed to cite any statutory authority that would justify its order compelling a broadband provider to adhere to open network management practices” and prevents them from blocking or discriminating against content. The court did allow the FCC to classify wireless carriers differently from landline ISPs. The ruling sent the FCC back to the drawing board.

The FCC is sifting through millions comments on Net neutrality filed by the public and is hosting several roundtables to hear from stakeholders and lawmakers.

Wireless carriers are contesting stricter rules, arguing that compared with landline providers, they use limited shared spectrum and rely on distinct and dynamic technology. Specifically, wireless carriers argue, these capabilities are critical to provide data services to connected cars

Automakers and Net Neutrality

In a letter to the FCC, General Motors summed up the benefits of connected cars and the potential harms of rigid, one-size fits-all net neutrality regulation: “real-time traffic and weather data, and vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, could leverage mobile networks…to deliver road safety and efficiency improvements. This variety of data – being accessed in the most mobile of circumstances – will require a range of mobile network management techniques to successfully enable the service provided to our customers. By needlessly constraining the latitude our mobile network operator suppliers have in delivering their connectivity to owners of our vehicles, you would also constrain the innovations we are seeking to provide to our customers…” (emphasis added)

Open standards and access to information are critical to encouraging innovation and competition.  The question is whether the FCC should undo the exemptions currently in place.

GM’s letter is discouraging the FCC from promulgating net neutrality rules for wireless providers and urged the agency “retain the critical distinction” between fixed and mobile Internet traffic and said new limitations for the mobile industry may constrain innovation in connected cars.

GM argues that “mobile broadband being delivered to a car moving at 75 mph down a highway – or for that matter, stuck in a massive spontaneous traffic jam – is a fundamentally different phenomenon from a wired broadband connection to a consumer’s home, and merits continued consideration under distinct rules that take this in to account. This is because the Commission can’t define exceptions for ‘reasonable network management’ for circumstances it can’t imagine.”

The important question being debated between the two sides is whether Net Neutrality will level the playing field and encourage more industry participation and open competitiveness, or, as GM argues, connected car services requires “priority lanes” that will ensure that critical data packets arrive at their destination faster and more reliably.

Although, as GM stated, a pervasive connected car environment is still over the horizon and, there will be unforeseen data management circumstances, it’s somewhat inconceivable that these systems will rely on general wireless service provider to communicate safety critical real time data. This raises the question whether there are engineering reasons to provide a “priority lane” for connected car data or are automakers and major carriers are trying to erect regulatory barriers to protect their foothold in the connected car business.

What About the Consumer?

In the early days of connected cars consumers had no say as far as the provider of wireless services. This hasn’t changed much. Depending the car you purchased you are locked into the OEM’s carrier of choice, which can change frequently as carriers negotiate new deals with the OEMs.

As I discussed in a last blog post on the consumer’s portable digital identity, consumer are likely to find this practice counterproductive and the use of the built-in wireless connection by consumers will be limited to telematic services that are tightly coupled with the vehicle identification number (VIN), and even these will survive only as long as the telematic connection is free.

When consumers rebuff the paid connectivity provided by the automaker and opt to using their own devices and data plans, OEMs will miss much of the potential they hope to get from connected cars, including the cornerstones of diagnostics, repair scheduling and remote software updates. 

Openness and competitiveness dictate that OEMs should also exercise neutrality when it comes to allowing consumers to select a wireless carrier of their choice. Similar to telephones, cars should be conceptually “SIM unlocked” by enabling tighter integration with brought-in applications and possibly even bandwidth.

While the public appears to be overwhelmingly for Net Neutrality, the answer is most likely in a baseline connectivity architecture that delivers the level of service and security automakers need. This architecture should also provide the necessary means to reduce driver distraction and provide a better and safer user experience as discussed in some detail in a previous blog post.

Beyond enabling basic secure operation, automakers should exercise net neutrality. Whatever exemptions they might get from the FCC, these exemptions should not be used to control user information and non-critical vehicle data.

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