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Groups call for open cellular nets

Posted: 16 Apr 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:open cellular networks to Web applications? carrier restrictions on mobile applications? carriers controlling rollout of Wi-Fi Bluetooth?

A growing chorus of companies and public-interest groups is calling for cellular carriers to open their networks to any device or Web application. Carrier restrictions are choking innovation and consumer choice, stalling the next big round in wireless growth, they say.

The Skype division of online auction company eBay filed a petition with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February asking regulators to end the practice of carriers' controlling which devices and apps are used on their networks. Skype also asked the FCC to oversee an industry group that would create open standards for wireless networks.

Two public-interest groups are mulling similar action. And a handset maker in Taiwan is preparing to release a cellphone based on open-source software that it wants to sell independently of carriers.

At issue is U.S. carriers' practice of restricting their networks to approved handsets and applications sold by the carriers themselves. Carriers often require that handsets use specific techniques to lock the devices for use only on their networks.

Blog power
A Columbia law professor decried the practice in a position paper he posted on the Web in February. In a synopsis on his blog, Tim Wu asserts that wireless carriers are "aggressively controlling product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets to the detriment of consumers."

Carriers are blocking or controlling the rollout of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, advanced short message service, mobile browsers, legal image and audio file transfers, and call timers, Wu wrote. Separately, carriers are stunting wireless applications growth by failing to create open software standards, he asserts.

Public Knowledge (an advocacy group focused on digital rights) and the Media Access Project (a non-profit legal group focused on First Amendment rights in electronic media) are studying Wu's paper and consulting with others about possible FCC petitions they may file. "Tim Wu's paper certainly provides a strong foundation for a petition to the FCC to mandate network attachment rules and network neutrality for wireless," said Harold Feld, senior VP of MAP.

Locked ecosystem
Wu's paper "nailed everything," said Jeff Hawkins, a founder of Palm Inc. and designer of Treo smart phone and Palm Pilot PDA. "We can't build the products we want to build, charge for them what we want and add the services we want."

"The whole ecosystem is locked," said Sean Moss-Pultz, a product manager at First International Computer, one of Taiwan's largest PC makers. In March, FIC released the Neo1973, a handset that uses only open-source Linux software. Pultz is courting developers to write applications for the phone, which he hopes to sell directly to users.

"This is the missing piece in the mobile industry today, a device for which anyone can develop applications," Moss-Pultz said.

In its petition, Skype asks the FCC to apply the so-called Carterfone rules to the wireless industry. Those rules were enacted in the U.S. in the 1960s to force wired-telephony monopoly AT&T to let consumers connect phones and other devices to its network, even if the devices were not made or approved by AT&T. (Skype software lets users make free long-distance calls using VoIP.)

"There is an open legal question whether the Carterfone rules already apply to wireless carriers," Wu said. "According to a 1992 ruling, Verizon is supposed to offer 'naked' call services for wireless, just like they offer it for wired customers, without requiring the customer to buy a phone from them."

The Skype petition asks the FCC to start a proceeding to determine the legality of carrier restrictions on subscriber access to Internet-based applications. While 5 million potential users have downloaded the Skype software to their smart phones, according to a spokeswoman, some carriers' terms of service explicitly prevent customers from using Skype on their networks.

"We want to give users the ability to use our software on the mobile Internet," said Chris Libertelli, senior director of government and regulatory affairs at Skype, who filed the petition.

The petition also asks the commission to oversee a private-sector group, yet to be created, that would set open standards and work for transparency in wireless networks. "This request balances the government's traditional role of oversight with industry-led standards," Libertelli said.

No other companies joined Skype on the petition. But Libertelli shared the document with a range of tech companies, including some handset makers, and they may share their views once the FCC opens the petition to public comment. "It would be useful to get the support of handset makers," said Libertelli. "However, many of them have commercial relationships with carriers that might affect their positions."

Delicate issue
"This is a delicate issue for companies whose customers are carriers," said Wu.

According to Skype's petition, Cingular forced Nokia to strip Wi-Fi capabilities out of its European E62/E61 smart phones before they could be used on the carrier's U.S. network.

Verizon typically requires that handset makers disable Bluetooth's file transfer capabilities on their handsets. That's because it wants users to download camera-phone pictures to a paid Verizon Website rather than directly to their local PCs, the petition states.

Groups are saying that carrier restrictions are killing wireless growth.

Carriers are inhibiting the deployment of consumer products, including cameras and handheld GPS devices with embedded cellular networking, said Wu. "Mobile cameras could easily download pictures slowly in the background over a cellular line, but we haven't seen this yet," he said.

Wu suggested that the hardware and software restrictions have stalled the long-anticipated rollout of location-based services using GPS capabilities already built into most phones. In addition, several carriers have told handset makers to remove a software feature for tracking call minutes, ostensibly because the carriers don't want users to know when they exceed their contracted minutes. Carriers have also slowed the rollout of social-networking apps for mobile phones, Wu said.

Palm's Hawkins said designers chafe at the locking mechanisms that carriers require handset makers to build into phones. "It makes it hard to build and test phones. We need special tools," he said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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