It’s only been a month since Tom Wheeler stepped down from his post as chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, but he’s already lined up a new gig. In late February, Actility, a Paris-based Internet of Things management firm, signed Wheeler on as the newest member of its board.
At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, he and Mike Mulica, CEO of Actility, sat down with Digital Trends to talk about the company, the future of IoT devices, and the importance of net neutrality.
IoT is about to explode in a big way
The IoT industry is ripe for innovation, Mulica told Digital Trends. Rapid advancements in miniaturized electronics, particularly in the areas of batteries and wireless radios, have driven a veritable explosion of IoT devices.
“Open networks are essential to Actility’s vision of the future.”
“It’s great from a cost standpoint,” Mulica told Digital Trends. “We have very long-range radio protocols that are low-cost, and low-cost sensors that have great battery life. You can put a battery-powered sensor on something and it lasts up to five years.”
But cheap IoT sensors don’t do any good if there isn’t a management solution, and until now, there hasn’t been one. “Sensors aren’t difficult, connectivity isn’t difficult, but you need sensors that all work together,” Mulica said. “And that’s where Actility comes in.”
Mulica describes Actility’s MO as “disruption” in open systems — a software layer that allows IoT customers to manage connected objects, deploy them, and monitor them on their network of choice. “We’re radio agnostic,” he said.
Mulica contends that the model fosters innovation. Developers certify IoT products themselves, often collaborating to ensure compatibility with the broader network. “We built an end-to-end software framework that allows companies to collaborate around our network and build a platform,” he said. “We don’t pick winners.”
“Open networks are essential to Actility’s vision of the future,” he said. Eventually, Mulica predicts most people will buy services that come with connections. “You’ll get a subscription for security, or electricity optimizations, or XYZ. You’ll have a bunch of subscriptions.”
Net neutrality levels the playing field for IoT devices
Of course, IoT devices require a network, and in the U.S., those networks are increasingly favoring first-party services at the competition’s expense. These companies are picking winners and determining the losers. AT&T, for example, doesn’t count DirecTV traffic against customers’ data plans, a practice known as zero rating. Programs like AT&T’s fly in the face of net neutrality, a principle that Wheeler believes is vitally important.
“You have to have open networks — permissionless innovation. Period. End of discussion,” he explained. “They’re crucial to the future.”
There are exceptions, Wheeler said, like throttling the speeds of certain customers in congested cell sites. “There’s nothing wrong with reasonable network management,” Wheeler said. “The airwaves are a finite resource.” But when it’s used without good reason, he said, it’s “inexcusable.”
“Where it becomes hideous is where [an internet provider] says, ‘Well you know, the average Netflix users uses 350MB a month, so I think I’ll just draw the line at 300MB a month, which favors my cable service,'” Wheeler said. “We tried to be the referee on the field.”
Wheeler was instrumental in advancing the cause of net neutrality, or the idea that internet providers should treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. In 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband providers as “Title II” common carriers, or services bound to “act in the public interest.” They’re prohibited from making “unjust” or “unreasonable” charges, and from arbitrarily blocking connectivity, throttling speeds, or creating creating special “fast lanes” for content.
“You have to have open networks — permissionless innovation. Period. End of discussion.”
“We put out a report that AT&T was using their ownership of the network to favor their content and thwart competition from others’ content, and that was bad, and that was a violation of [net neutrality] rules,” Wheeler said. “Then [current FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai came in, and immediately repudiated that [and] took it down.”
Pai has said publicly that he would like to revisit the net neutrality rules, which he believes has held up investment in the marketplace.
Wheeler vociferously disagrees. “There will be no competition for managed services if they use the lack of competition as leverage to shut down your ability to drive your smart car, for example,” said Wheeler. “That’s exactly what the [net neutrality] rules protected against. We went down this road on zero rating to enforce it, and the new FCC has undone that.”
The FCC doesn’t have absolute authority to impose new regulations, Wheeler noted. The Administrative Procedure Act requires that they give the public notice that it’s considering adopting or modifying rules on a particular subject and seeks the public’s comment, and FCC decision can be appealed to court.
Ensuring networks remain open will require vigilance on the part of the public, Wheeler said. “It’s important that people feel empowered and aware that they can speak out of this. There have to have to be people working hard on … raising these issues.”