How Open Are Carriers to Open Networks?

Carl Weinschenk

It's interesting that this advance story on the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment show in San Francisco focuses on what will be the biggest change to hit wireless in a decade: the opening of the networks. The story says that keynote speakers -- CEOs Lowell McAdam of Verizon Wireless and Dan Hesse of Sprint Nextel -- will focus on the topic.


Open networks -- in the fullest form, the ability to use any device on any network -- are a great thing. The questions are to what degree and how quickly it will happen. There is the possibility that companies aren't really excited about open networks, but don't want to be seen as resisting for political and marketing reasons. Wireline carriers dragged their feet on fulfilling requirements to let outsiders lease capacity on their networks under open access rules. It is possible that carriers will follow suit in the wireless realm.


Sue Marek at Fierce Wireless asks a seemingly innocent question: Just what are open networks? She comments that the definition tends to be different for each player. Marek reports on an interview that she conducted with a senior vice president at Sprint. The executive told her that Sprint "is embracing the mobile Web" and wants to ease the task of developers.


Perhaps. I wonder, however, just how anxious wireless providers as a group really are to move into this brave new world. At the end of the day, perhaps the thing that frightens businesses most is uncertainty. The new era of wireless -- featuring open networks, open source devices and other significant but more subtle changes -- clearly takes carriers far outside their comfort zone. These are not gunslingers eagerly awaiting the ability to compete in a truly open market.


The reluctance of carriers to truly embrace change is one of the themes of this post by Antony Brydon at his blog. He suggests that a Sprint Nextel product manager's claim that Android should have more "proactive and direct linkage" to carriers' networks and service requirements is really a call for maintaining the control wireless carriers enjoyed in the past. Google, of course, seeks openness so that it can get the broadband access to customers that it needs. One of the main battlegrounds on which this struggle is playing out, Brydon says, is location awareness.


This story, credited to The New York Times but posted at Tampa Bay Online, traces the various threads of pressure driving the carriers to open themselves. Sophisticated mobile devices are one source of pressure. This is particularly true for AT&T, the sole carrier of the iPhone. The carriers also recognize the huge silver lining for them: The more applications that are downloaded and messages sent, the more money they will make.


The bottom line is that carriers recognize that openness benefits all the players and is inevitable. That doesn't make it any easier on a practical level, however. The carriers, of course, will do fine and, in some form or fashion, accept open networks. It will be interesting to watch during the next year which truly welcome and accept the new and unfamiliar structure and which continue to resist.

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