Should the FTC look at AT&T’s 3G woes?

The lingering, won’t-go-away question about whether or not AT&T’s wireless networks are up to snuff reached a bit of a critical mass this past weekend, first with a critical story in the New York Times that was followed by reports of iPhone Disconnectus at SXSW.

Though Ma Bell tried to soothe the interactive crowd’s Twitter explosion of contempt by adding more cell capacity in Austin, Om does a good job of asking the bigger question of what’s up with the network anyway, and wonders if making AT&T fess up or fix it is a job for the new FCC.

But as our non-typo headline suggests, maybe this is really a task for the Federal TRADE Commission, which regulates things like truth in advertising and false product claims. If you want some regulatory action in this calendar year, the FTC might be a better bet because it probably doesn’t need new regulations passed to start wondering in a very legal sense if saying things like “More Bars in More Places” isn’t worth the same protection or information the FTC provides about things like automobile undercoating.

As I have stated before, I am no lawyer. But there’s no shortage of legal talent at the FTC, including its new leader Jon Leibowitz, who is among those making noises about getting involved in the whole net neutrality/telco regulation debate, a tussle previously fought mainly on the FCC’s turf. Maybe a good place for the FTC to start poking around is with the wireless data networks, where in the U.S. there are billing and advertising norms that would never be accepted in other industries. Could you imagine going to buy meat or milk, and the only guidance you had was a sticker saying “our meat is the best,” or “the best milk ever,” with no way of knowing even what animal it came from or where those animals live?

An extreme and weak comparison, perhaps, but why do we allow wireless providers to sell a product without disclosing how much of it we actually can use, or where it might be most available? Why isn’t there regulation of some sort that forces providers to disclose exactly where cell towers are and how strong a signal might be in any given location — so that you can actually consume the service you are paying for?

Again, these are very broad thoughts and suggestions for tightening the focus are welcome. But given that incoming FCC chairman Julius Genachowski probably won’t take over until late spring or early summer, and only then might start talking about necessary new legislation or regulation, why not let the FTC take a stab right now at bringing some clarity to wireless networks by helping to eliminate the fuzzy advertising, weak claims of “it’s working” and bring some measurement to the process? Forget about net neutrality, let’s start with just getting customers what they pay for, or making providers live up to or change their advertising claims.

About Paul Kapustka

Paul Kapustka is a longtime journalist who has spent more than two decades covering the information technology business, Paul most recently has been focusing on mobility and how it has changed the computing and collaborative landscape. His newest project outside Mobile Enterprise 360 is a research and analysis operation called WiFi Journal. He is also editor in chief of Mobile Sports Report, which covers the intersection of mobile technology and sports business. Paul is also the founder of Sidecut Reports, a research firm that covered the emergence of 4G technology in the cellular marketplace.


  1. But….. Ftc by law lacks jurisdiction over common carriers. Shoulda woulda coulda whatever… No jurisdiction.

  2. Maybe not over the common carrier portion, but what if you define the 3G as an Internet service? The FTC already has asserted it has jurisdiction in such an arena. (See this link for an old argument.)

    And lack of clear jurisdiction didn’t stop the FCC from slapping at Comcast… so it’s not as black and white as it seems, ever, when you are talking D.C. and lawyers.