Verizon Wireless' Open Network Earns Praise

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Verizon Wireless' decision to open its network to outside mobile devices and applications has won praise from several groups, including past critics.

Verizon Wireless officials announced Tuesday they would open up their network to any devices and software customers want to use by the second half of 2008. Any device that passes a minimal connectivity test will be allowed on the Verizon Wireless network, officials said.

That announcement drew applause from a wide variety of groups. Public Knowledge, a consumer rights group that has pushed for open network regulations from the U.S. Congress or the Federal Communications Commission, said it was "cautiously optimistic" about Verizon's decision.

Verizon's decision could lead to "a more open network in the wireless industry at large," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president. Wireless carriers have fought an FCC decision to require open access on a portion of spectrum in the 700MHz band to be auctioned starting in January, she noted.

"The Verizon announcement, however, is very limited," Sohn added. "If other carriers don't follow the same model, then consumers will still find their phones tied to a specific technology or wireless company. In order for an open network to become a reality, all carriers will have to participate."

Verizon will still decide what phones can operate on its network, she said. Public Knowledge would prefer to have a third party decide what phones can operate on the Verizon network, she said.

She also has continuing questions about prices. If Verizon continues to offer its preferred mobile phones at a discount, "then the adoption of the open model will be minimal, absent a rapid decline in cell phone prices," Sohn said. "We need to know whether the rates for Verizon service plans will vary for those with subsidized phones and for those customers with a phone bought elsewhere."

Others were less guarded with their praise.

Verizon's announcement, combined with the Google-led Open Handset Alliance, is a "significant" step toward the goal of more open wireless networks, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, said in a statement.

"As I noted when we adopted open network rules for our upcoming spectrum auction, wireless customers should be able to use the wireless device of their choice and download whatever software they want onto it," Martin added. "I continue to believe that more openness -- at the network, device, and application level -- helps foster innovation and enhances consumers' freedom and choice in purchasing wireless service. I am optimistic that Verizon Wireless's commitment along with the upcoming spectrum auction will ensure an exciting new era in wireless technology for the benefit of all consumers."

Solveig Singleton, an adjunct senior fellow with Maryland think tank the Free State Foundation, said Verizon's voluntary decision makes more sense than open network regulations such as net-neutrality rules pushed by Public Knowledge and other groups.

"Requiring openness or neutrality beyond the basics now supported by demand would needlessly make development far more costly and slow," she wrote in an e-mail. "A company that wants to invent a new type of phone with cutting-edge features already has a good bit to think about without having to worry about new phones and networks being simultaneously built by everyone else."

Many proposed net-neutrality rules would require wireless and broadband providers to treat all network traffic equally, she said.

"Mandate 'open' and 'neutral' everywhere all the time for everything, and innovation will slow to a snail's pace and network traffic will jam," she added. "Competition between operators to offer innovative combinations of services at special prices would become almost impossible. In this fast-changing context, a regulatory command to treat all traffic all the same is just a bad idea."

Also praising Verizon's decision were Funambol, a developer of open-source calendar and messaging tools for mobile phones, and the New America Foundation, a think tank that has pushed for open access rules on the 700MHz spectrum

The FCC and Google deserve credit for pushing the issue forward, said Michael Calabrese, director of New America's Wireless Future Program.

"This appears to be a move to head off market entry and new wireless competition from Google and other Internet companies that would result if the incumbent carriers were unwilling to meet minimal FCC consumer choice requirements," he said in an e-mail.

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