Verizon has outlined a plan to loosen its handset exclusivity deals, limiting their lifespan to six months. The announcement's caveats are massive and Verizon's motivations aren't pure, but it's nonetheless a step in the right direction.

In a letter to lawmakers, the carrier announced intentions to institute a six-month limit on handset exclusivity, allowing competing companies to move in on Verizon exclusives big and small. Great! Except for one minor detail: These "competing companies," it turns out, must have 500,000 consumers or less. This shuts out every national carrier you've ever heard of and quite a few regional ones, meaning this change only has the potential to affect about 5.6% of wireless users, according to the Consumer Union.


And then there's that nasty business of motivation: Verizon has been stewing over AT&T's exclusive iPhone contract for over two years now, and can't have been too happy about getting snubbed by Palm with the Pre—a handset that they've been very vocal about pursuing. Loosening their own exclusivity deals, however slightly, gives them a sturdier leg to stand on should they choose to publicly grouse about another carrier's phone-hoarding—something they're already positioned fairly well to do, simply because the most exciting Verizon exclusive is probably the BlackBerry Storm. They don't have much to lose, basically.

Beyond business savvy, there's a legal angle too. From the WSJ:

Verizon's change comes at a time that the exclusive handset deals are being examined by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice.The move could ease pressure on the FCC to take up the issue because the most vocal critics of exclusive handset deals at the agency have been some of the same small, rural wireless carriers who could benefit from Friday's change.


The public's opposition to carrier exclusivity is nebulous, faint and hard to convert into any kind of meaningful pressure on larger companies; small carriers, however, are more than ready to take larger carriers' anti-competitive habits to task, in court and with lawmakers. If this can placate the little guys, Verizon is free to draw up its contracts however it pleases. So there's that.

This plan isn't going to change anything for most people, and it could be part of a larger maneuver against the kind of legislation that could really further to anti-exlusivity cause, but for now, it means more options for (a few) more people, which can't be all bad. [WSJ]