Network Management Doesn’t Have to Be Evil

Yesterday Sprint launched its Xohm WiMAX service in Baltimore, the first step toward what could become a nationwide, alternative wireless broadband network. Within a few hours, the blogosphere was in an uproar over the network management practices Sprint had disclosed on its web site. But the issue is about more than Sprint throttling traffic on its network during times of congestion; it’s about a consumers’ right to know what happens to their traffic on the network.

The problem rests with the Federal Communications Commission, which in August called out Comcast for managing its Internet traffic in a way that stifled potentially competitive services, and did so without telling customers. The FCC then required Comcast to file a detailed network management plan. That decision should lay the groundwork for other ISPs, wireless and otherwise, to specify in detail how they plan to manage traffic on their networks. The FCC needs to require that broadband providers (all of them) do this. Barring FCC action, the providers should volunteer such plans on their own.

Sprint attempts this with its acceptable use policy, saying it reserves the right to manage its network using the following options:

  • limiting, or otherwise restricting uplink and downlink speeds and transfer rates
  • restricting or limiting, on a non-discriminatory basis, the number of sessions, applications or protocols (including peer-to-peer sessions) during periods of high network congestion
  • temporarily delaying, on a non-discriminatory basis, sessions, other applications or protocols (including peer-to-peer sessions) during periods of high network congestion

But Sprint hasn’t disclosed enough. In order for consumers to be able to decide whether or not this is a service on which they’ll spend $30 a month, the company needs to offer more information. How much are speeds slowed? For everyone, or only for heavy users? As Ben Scott, a policy director at the Free Press, told me, we are living in a post-Comcast order world, so if you tell people you’re offering them an unlimited service, then you should give them that. And if you have limits, you need to define them. Clearly.

Sprint told me the Xohm network wouldn’t have bandwidth caps because it’s a capacity play, not a speed play. With all of this capacity it should be able to offer up a detailed network management plan that consumers will find reasonable. When it comes to allowing any device from a data card to a navigation device, Xohm may already be open. But Sprint needs to open up about how it manages its WiMAX network.