Wireless Oligopoly Is Smother of InventionS

If the people who brought us television had played by the same rules that today's wireless carriers impose - we'd probably all be listening to the radio.

Which is a nice way of saying the wireless industry - AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile - needs some ground rules that make clear they are common carriers that get the right to rent the airwaves by abiding by fair rules.

Right now, they play by their own rules.

Imagine if the wireless carriers controlled your wired broadband connection or your television set. You'd have to buy your television from your cable company, with a two-year contract, and when that ended, you'd have to ask them to unlock it so you could take it to another provider.

If the wireless company ran your ISP, you'd have to use a computer they approved, and if you wanted to use a different one, you'd pay more. Want Wi-Fi in your house? That'll be an extra $30 a month and $150 to buy an approved but functionally limited Wi-Fi device.

Luckily, that's not the case.

Let's recap the freedoms you have with your television: The specs are standard and public. Any company that wants to make a television - whether it be an HD, 3-D, internet-connected plasma 6-footer or a handheld TV Walkman - just makes a television, according to transparent (FCC) spectrum rules.

Then you get to buy it. It just works. You watch the stations you want. You can hook it up to cable or satellite or DVR or plug a DVD player into it.

With your home broadband connection, you can buy the router of your choice, hook up as many computers as you like, and use whatever programs you like on your computers. You can even use your connection as a base station for your cellular phone, or have your bathroom scale automatically report your weight to Twitter.

You can even share that internet connection with whomever you like, including strangers who might otherwise be customers of that same ISP.

When you upgrade your computer or router (or even the smartphone that uses your home Wi-Fi), your ISP doesn't even know and doesn't care.

The world of mobile in the U.S. is different. Much different.

You only get a single device, one that has to be preapproved by the carrier.

The device is almost always locked down. If you manage to pry its OS open enough to install software, you void your warranty.

If you care to use your 3G connection occasionally as a modem for your laptop, be prepared to pay $30 extra a month - or hack the device and (see above) void your warranty.

If you want to switch devices, you'll often be forced to ‘upgrade' to a more expensive plan, even if your current plan offers unlimited data. For instance, Sprint has tens of thousands of users using its old friends-of-a- employee plan, known as SERO, which offered unlimited data on its best smartphones. Unhappy with the bargain it struck, the company refuses to let those customers upgrade to new devices - even if they buy the devices for full price.

Any device that runs on these carrier's networks must be approved by the carriers.

The wireless industry defends itself, saying that it's changed its ways. Long notorious for crippling their phones and strangling app developers who wanted access to their devices, the carriers have loosened their policies, since AT&T made its fateful deal with Apple, which ripped control of the device out of AT&T's hands.

The result showed to the world how the wireless industry had purposely crippled cell phones to boost their bottom lines, customers be damned.

Now, the FCC, which is mulling more official net-neutrality rules, has the chance to finish the job Apple started, but couldn't bring itself to finish - removing the carriers stranglehold over mobile devices.

Unfortunately, the idea of setting basic, common carrier ground rules - rules that simply lay out what freedoms we all expect - are somehow being twisted into the government taking control of the internet. (In which case, we must be living in a Communist country because the proposal is simple.)

Require the nation's wireless carriers to publish the specs they use on their networks, so that any device maker can make a device that works on any network or all the networks. Then require the carriers to offer service, with published limits, to any customer, using any compliant device, at a fair price. Subscribers would have the right to use more than one device, or at the very least, switch them with minimal effort. Those devices could run whatever software they like, so long as they don't harm the network.

That should be the requirement for the carriers who are using the public's spectrum.

AT&T and Sprint and Verizon and T-Mobile may have paid hefty sums to rent the airwaves, but they do not own them.

The carriers will doubtlessly whine to Congress that their networks are too special and too fragile. Meanwhile, they will brag to customers about how strong and robust their cell networks are - touting services like streaming video for the iPhone, Skype on Verizon, and SprintTV on Sprint smartphones.

They can't have it both ways.

If their networks are fragile, then they should lose their licenses, and the country should redistribute them to tech companies that can manage them well.

If the networks are strong and robust, then like their wire-line competitors they should have to open them up to any device that comports with published standards.

There's a history of this. When AT&T was forced to allow non-AT&T approved devices in the Carterfone decision, we soon saw an explosion in new devices that found innovative uses for the network.

We got home answering machines, fax machines and portable phones. Even better, we got modems.

Granted there's been an explosion of innovation (finally) in mobile devices in the past few years. Apple, Palm and HTC are all making beautiful devices that feel like magic in your hand. The Kindle and iPad are likewise magical, relying on 3G connections.

But what we really need is to break the carrier's stranglehold on devices.

We should free the makers and small companies of the world to make devices without having to negotiate with carriers to get their approval.

Say you wanted to make a phone just for weekend nights, say one that included a lighter and a slot for holding whatever kind of cigarette you like. What carrier would offer that phone?

Or how about ones designed for kids, the elderly or the disabled?

A company could make a phone with guts that mesh with a number of networks, making the wireless companies have to compete for your business.

Google made a half-hearted effort to break the carrier's grip with its Nexus One, which they wanted to sell directly to individuals who could then choose their carrier. Among the problems leading Google to close its online store was that the carriers soon decided that playing that game wasn't in their long-term interest. Verizon and Sprint backed out of their commitment to support the device - leaving U.S. customers with only T-Mobile.

The carriers's lobbying association likes to point to all the cool new phones and ask "Where's the harm?" The problem is the harm comes from the devices and services that haven't been invented yet, because wireless isn't an open platform.

We literally don't know what we are missing.

When AT&T was forced to open its network by a federal court, the challenge came from a device maker whose product, the Carterfone, connected a two-way radio to the phone line. It was a nifty invention, though one that few citizens used.

But it opened the way for devices that we all use daily.

It's time to do the same for wireless.

The airwaves are ours, not the networks', and it's past time for them to be open.

Now, we just need an FCC and an administration with the guts to stand up to the dissembling and the lobbying of the nation's wireless carriers. They maintain profit margins of 40 percent, in no small part because they keep choking innovation.

If they don't stop, they ought to lose their licenses.

Image: pasukaru76/Flickr


Wireless Oligopoly Is Smother of InventionWired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.