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July 03, 2007

Is Clearwire a Net Neutrality Violator? Does It Matter?

Reader Bill reports that Wireless ISP Clearwire blocked ports in the service provided to him in a way which prevented him from running audio and video chat applications.  Bill was commenting on my post last week which included the Federal Trade Commission claim that only one small case of this type of anticompetitive behavior had been documented.  I should have done a little more research – at least on Google – before repeating this claim uncritically.

Clearwire is a Wireless ISP offering a pre-WiMAX service in selected markets in the US and several other countries. The company was founded by Craig McCaw of Cellular One fame and claims 258,000 customers as of March 2007; it offers its own VoIP over its network connections. Turns out Clearwire was involved in a port-blocking flap with Vonage back in 2005.

First, here’s part of what Bill has to say:

“My service provider (Clearwire) purposely blocks specific ports that had prevented me from using my Internet connection for legitimate use, audio and video chat. My troubleshooting did not suspect this at first since, according to everything I read, no companies are engaging in anti-competitive behavior. The first place I found out about this is on the Internet where some unhappy customers’ discuss the specific ports Clearwire blocks. It turns out; those were the ports the iChat uses for audio/video chat. I called the company to ask them to fix this and they acted like there was nothing that could be done and that these "VoIP" ports (as per the CSR) were always blocked by Clearwire. I told them they were violating the good faith of our contract by preventing me from using my Internet connection for legitimate purposes and threatened to drop them. It was then that they escalated my claim (to Las Vegas) and opened those ports up for me within a couple days….”

In 2005, according to a story on CRN, a Vonage customer reported that he couldn’t use that service over a Clearwire connection and was told by a Clearwire customer service rep that he couldn’t use Vonage over Clearwire. Clearwire EVP Gerry Salemme is quoted as saying “Applications like Vonage's VoIP could hurt the other customers [on the Clearwire network], bring down the other customers.” I don’t know the context of this statement but, on its own, it’s technical nonsense. VoIP is hardly a bandwidth hungry application.

Vonage reported fixing the problem by changing the port number it uses for connections. [for my non-nerd readers, port numbers are arbitrary numbers included in IP packets which are used to say which application running on your computer or a web server should look at which packet. Given their purpose, they can easily be used to block packets destined for certain applications. Given their arbitrariness, they can easily be changed to defeat the blocking.]

The FCC didn’t get involved in the Clearwire case the way it did with Madison River, a rural telco that blocked VoIP, presumably because Clearwire is not a phone company subject to regulation (although more lately the FCC seems to feel that VoIP providers should at least be subject to the some of the obligations but not the rights of phone companies).  The FTC did not cite this incident or current Clearwire incidents in its report on net neutrality.

I’ve claimed that a competitive market for Internet connectivity would make net neutrality a non-issue. This seems to be the case in countries like the UK where there is sufficient competition to allow consumer choice to be the regulator. Clearwire, with an interesting service, which I’ll write up later is the kind of competitor to the entrenched telco/cableco duopoly that we need to have emerge. But they are reportedly blocking – and in a way which advantages their own VoIP service.  Given a choice I wouldn’t buy their service because of this policy.

Should the wrath of the FTC or the FCC descend on them?  No, I don’t think so; they are not a huge monopoly; they serve (according to their FAQ and their map) largely places where there are DSL and cable alternatives.  Their customers have a choice.  The only regulation they need to be subject to is truth-in-advertising. They should be clear abut what they block and what they don’t – even for their own sake. It is quite possible that their CSRs are misquoting policy to callers.

Users like Bill who make their experience public are an invaluable part of any competitive landscape. As competition in broadband Internet access emerges (I’m an optimist), we all have a role in helping to keep it honest (which doesn’t obviate the need for truth-in-advertising).

BTW, here’s an interesting post by David Isenberg – no more a fan of Verizon than I am – favorably comparing Verizon’s terms of service to those of Clearwire. Competition cuts both ways.

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