Open Wireless Networks: Just a Dream?

The push for open wireless networks that can accommodate all manner of mobile devices and applications grabbed a lot of headlines last year. But true mobile openness remains a distant, and perhaps unachievable, nirvana.

For now, mobile users aren't appreciably better off from an openness standpoint than they were at the start of 2008. And that likely won't change for years to come, according to Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass. " 'Open' still has a long way to go," Gold said.

The dim assessment by Gold and other mobile-industry analysts comes despite recent moves by Google Inc., the Federal Communications Commission and other organizations aimed at making it possible to run any application on any device on any network.

While that level of openness may never be reached, the FCC did set aside part of the 700-MHz wireless spectrum for open network access as part of an auction that was completed last March. Google was instrumental in lobbying for the inclusion of the open-access rules in the auction process.

In addition, Google last year pushed forward its Android mobile software platform through the Open Handset Alliance, which released an open-source version of the Android code in October. And last month, the alliance added 14 members, including network operators Softbank Mobile Corp. and Vodafone Group PLC and handset makers such as Toshiba Corp. and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB. That increased the alliance's membership to 47 companies.

Also, the first Android-based cell phone, the T-Mobile G1, was jointly introduced in September by Google, T-Mobile USA Inc. and hardware maker HTC Corp. Even before the G1's debut and the open-sourcing of Android, other vendors reacted. For example, Nokia Corp. in June announced plans to make its Symbian mobile operating system an open and royalty-free platform.

Despite such forward momentum, open is still a relative term in the mobile market. One paradox of Google's openness campaign is that even the G1 is locked to T-Mobile USA's network. Similarly, the iPhone is locked to AT&T Inc.'s mobile network in the U.S., and Research In Motion Ltd.'s new BlackBerry Storm works only on the Verizon Wireless network.

A Cluttered Market

Meanwhile, software developers still have to separately design their applications to run on as many as six major mobile operating systems, with Windows Mobile and Palm OS also in the mix. For example, as attractive as Apple Inc.'s iPhone App Store is, the applications available there won't work on other phones unless they're specifically written for those devices as well.

"The handset world is far from [being] commodity-oriented, write-once/run-anywhere, like the PC market is," Gold said. He predicted that the market will remain "dispersed over many device and platform choices" far into the future.

And the problem isn't just a theoretical one facing high-minded vendors and Washington policy wonks. Take the case of Jacquelyn Pourroy, a chef who works in Boston. She recently switched from a BlackBerry Storm to an iPhone, partly because the Apple device works smoothly with her Macintosh computer.

But when she converted, she lost access to RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody music service. The service isn't compatible with Macs, Pourroy noted in an e-mail. "That's a bummer, because I like the option of [using] Rhapsody," she wrote.

Gold and other analysts think network operators are primarily to blame for the lack of meaningful movement toward real openness and freedom of choice.

All wireless devices still have to be approved by carriers before they can be used on their networks - a fact that limits the ability of handset makers to innovate, Gold contended. "Imagine if PC vendors had to test and get approval for each brand of PCs out there," he said. "That would drastically alter the computing market."

Gartner Inc. analyst Phillip Redman said that "cellular networks have been so locked down" for so long that "even a little openness would be a good thing." But at this point, he said, there isn't even a good working definition of what would constitute an open wireless network.

He urged participants in the debate to agree upon a basic set of openness guidelines, then seek oversight from an industry group or regulatory body that could impose fines if carriers failed to meet the guidelines.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. all have openness initiatives in place. For example, Sprint is a member of the Open Handset Alliance, and AT&T has joined the Symbian Foundation, which plans to begin operations within the next six months.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel noted in an e-mail that his company sells a multitude of devices running different operating systems for use on its network. "We think that's what openness is all about," Siegel wrote, adding, "No customer comes into a phone store saying, 'Give me openness.' "

In an e-mail interview, Google officials said they didn't want to single out any one openness effort as being more important than others. But they praised the FCC for moving to promote more-open mobile platforms and networks, and said there may be a need for "further nudging" by the government to ensure that progress continues to be made.

"In essence, we would like to see the wireless world look more like the Internet," wrote Richard Whitt, Google's Washington-based counsel for telecommunications and media. "Hopefully, policymakers will consider stepping in - in a tailored way - if carriers fail to follow through on the early promise of open platforms for applications and devices."

The Internet's "openness ethos" has given Google and countless other companies a chance to thrive, Whitt said. What the mobile market needs, he contended, is the same kind of approach.

More Competition Might Open Up Networks

Open mobile networks might be more likely to become a reality if wireless carriers faced heightened competition, said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

Network operators "have been the big inhibitor in the growth of the mobile Internet," Dulaney claimed. The carriers could be forced to give up some control, he said, if the likes of Apple or Google began offering their own connectivity services.

That might never happen. But new competition is expected to come from the Clear mobile WiMax service being deployed by Clearwire Corp. under a joint venture with Sprint Nextel that was finalized in early December.

Clearwire, which also has received US$3.2 billion in investments from Google, Intel Corp. and three cable TV companies, launched the high-speed service in Portland, Ore., last week. Portland is the second city in which the WiMax network is live; in September, Sprint Nextel made the service available in Baltimore under its own Xohm brand name.

In another example of potential added competition, cable operator Cox Communications Inc. said in October that it's building a cellular network to offer mobile voice, data and entertainment services in the markets where it does business.

The network is scheduled to go live in four unidentified locations this year, according to Comcast, which also will use Sprint's wireless network to begin offering mobile services in other areas.

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