FCC poised to unlock cell phone user access
Mercury News Editorial
Article Launched: 12/09/2007 01:49:51 AM PST
A whiff of liberation is wafting toward consumers of wireless phone services.
Next month, the Federal Communications Commission will begin auctioning off a coveted swath of
airwaves ideal for offering new high-speed Internet services. Companies including Google, Verizon
Wireless, AT&T and some promising start-ups have signaled or confirmed they will bid for chunks of the
700 megahertz spectrum that's expected to fetch at least $15 billion for the U.S. government.
The auction is an encouraging development that portends an era of increased freedom and choice for
Internet and cell phone users. Consumers can expect more competition, innovation and lower prices, as
well as a leap forward in bringing the mobile Internet to more people.
The sale could loosen the tight lock a handful of giant cell phone companies have over the phones and
services their customers now use. A major block of the airwaves being sold must be operated under FCC
open-access rules requiring that the network be accessible to any device and application. That would be in
contrast to the current "walled garden," in which wireless carriers strictly control consumers' hardware and
The FCC also is requiring that another chunk of spectrum be available for creating a nationwide network
for emergency responders. Both the open-access and public safety requirements offer consumers
It's time the big wireless companies took down the walls around their networks. Currently, giants such as
AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint/Nextel dictate what mobile phones and services work with their
networks. They can lock customers into two-year contracts, subsidize the prices of certain handsets, block
third-party services and collect extra fees for certain functions such as transferring a photo from a cell
phone to a PC.
If the auction's open-access goal succeeds, cell phone consumers would enjoy the same flexibility people
now have with PCs and the Internet.
You now buy an Internet connection from one company but can attach different computer brands and
models to it, as well as run virtually any software application. In the future, you might buy your mobile
connection from, say, Verizon Wireless, then pick a BlackBerry handset, run the Skype Internet phone
service on it, and load ring tones, music files, TV shows or news clips from different providers. And you
could buy such services from providers other than your cell phone carrier and its authorized partners.
Fortunately for consumers, the open-access movement had been picking up steam well before the FCC
auction. Last month, Verizon Wireless did an about-face, announcing that it was opening up its network
next year to outside devices and applications. Last week, AT&T made a similar pronouncement. Other cell
phone companies should join the movement.
And, since there's a strong chance that the deep-pocketed and entrenched cell phone giants will emerge
among the winning bidders, the FCC must watch carefully to make sure their networks are truly opened
Google deserves praise for stoking the movement. It was a leading voice in lobbying the FCC to include an
open-access rule in the upcoming auction.
The Mountain View search engine company plans to make a bid, most likely for the open-access slice of
spectrum that carries a minimum price tag of $4.6 billion. And Google helped the cause by joining an
industry alliance promoting "open" handsets and by releasing its Android software platform, which is
designed to make it cheaper and easier for independent developers to create mobile applications.
The auction results should be announced in March. Both the FCC and winning bidders must ensure that
whatever changes occur in the wireless world live up to the auction's promise of greater competition and