Telecoms embrace the future of open wireless networks–or do they?

By Martin Bosworth

USA Today got the scoop that AT&T is now publicizing the ability of customers to use any phone or any software they want on the AT&T network:

Starting immediately, AT&T customers can ditch their AT&T phones and use any wireless phone, device and software application from any maker — think smartphones, e-mail and music downloading. And they don’t have to sign a contract. “You can use any handset on our network you want,” says Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T’s wireless business. “We don’t prohibit it, or even police it.”…AT&T for years kept quiet the fact that wireless customers had the option of using devices and applications other than those offered by AT&T. But now salespeople in AT&T phone stores will make sure that consumers “know all their options” before making a final purchase. The AT&T wireless chief won’t say whether AT&T plans to launch a marketing campaign to push “open” platforms, but allows that might be a possibility.

This is certainly great news for any AT&T customer, and another sign that the American telecom industry is warming up to the reality that open networks with open devices are the way of the future. But are things really as “open” as they seem?

As the USA Today article notes, the iPhone–the holy grail of an open device standard–will still require a two-year contract lock-in with AT&T, and given that Apple has built the business model of many of its product on a closed “walled garden” system, I’m skeptical that we’ll see iPhones working legally on T-Mobile’s or Verizon’s network anytime soon. Engadget (via WebProNews) also notes that swapping your SIM card from one phone to another and not having it turn into a paperweight isn’t the same thing as a truly open network that all devices can access.

AT&T’s announcement followed Verizon’s claim that it would open its own network to all devices and software. Of course, the devil is in the fine print, and in this case, Verizon’s as-yet-unpublished “technical standards” may end up nixing a multitude of applications that customers may want to use. There’s also the fact that Verizon’s CDMA network is not the worldwide standard GSM network, so a phone that is enabled for GSM won’t work on Verizon Wireless’ standard. TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld also made the sharp-eyed catch that there may be a two-tiered system for the “open” Verizon network, where apps designed for the new non-Verizon phones will not be available to existing Verizon customers.

So what does all this mean? GigaOm’s Daniel Berninger thinks that though Verizon may attempt to introduce some price discrimination into its open network model, they’ve committed themselves so publicly to the concept that customers–and media watchdogs–won’t accept half-steps. We won’t know until we have a chance to parse Verizon’s tech standards to see if there are any “gotchas” involved.

In the meantime, the moves by big telecoms to embrace openness as the way are a clear response to Google’s stepping up its game in the mobile arena. Not only has Google committed to bidding $4.6 billion in the FCC wireless spectrum auction, it’s also the prime mover behind the Open Handset Alliance, a coalition of technology and mobile providers working to support Android, Google’s proposed open-source mobile phone operating system and application suite. Note that among the supporters of the Alliance are Sprint and T-Mobile, the third-and-fourth-place wireless providers, who stand to gain a lot more from supporting Google than AT&T and Verizon do.

This is not to say that Google is completely comfortable or adept in this arena yet, as witnessed by its inexplicable nerfing of its iPhone homepage. But they’re clearly making moves powerful enough to put some of the world’s most powerful corporations on notice that a truly open network is the way to go, and it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t settle for half-measures or compromises. “Open” means “open,” and we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

UPDATE: TechDirt’s Mike Masnick rips USA Today for claiming AT&T’s new openness is more than it really is. Read the whole thing, as they say.

12 replies »

  1. Martin wrote: “Of course, the fine print is in the details….”

    Martin, I’ve heard him called Satan, Old Scratch, Old Nick, The Evil One, The Adversary, Beelzebub (incorrectly by those who haven’t read their Milton), even Bonesparkle – but I’ve never heard the devil called “the fine print.”

    I think you may have expanded our language, my friend…. 🙂