New FCC Chief Will Have to Deal with Open Access

Carl Weinschenk

It's going to be pretty much All-Obama-All-of-the-Time for the next couple of weeks. From the telecommunications sector, important news was made today as reports surfaced that the president-elect will chose Julius Genachowski as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. RCR Wireless lists open access as one of the main challenges that the putative head of the agency will face if his nomination is approved.

 

The wireless industry had a Kumbaya moment in late 2007 when major carriers said they would open their networks, meaning that they would relax the iron-fisted control they traditionally exert over which devices are allowed to connect. Such moments usually pass quickly when there is money involved, and open access is proving no exception.

 

This post survives a sub-par headline (the first two words are "Open, Schmopen") to raise serious questions about the drive to openness. Analyst Jack Gold says that nothing much has happened since Verizon Wireless and AT&T said they would open their networks.

 

It's true that many of the objections he raises can be explained away. For instance, he points out that there still is a rigorous testing regimen for products hoping for clearance on a network. Even in its most liberal form, however, such procedures are necessary to ensure the integrity of the network. Still, Gold makes a good case that network operators aren't rushing to fulfill their promises and that the general trend line-which includes operating systems and applications in addition to network access-is away from openness.

 

This is a very interesting post from Verizon Wireless outlining precisely what they have done on open networks. There are 14 bullet points. While at times it has the feel of a high school student trying to stretch an essay to fill the required space-for instance, a bullet point is given to the announcement that an open developer's conference would take place and another to the conference itself-there undoubtedly is some substance to the company's activities. Six products or product families were certified last year. The vendors are Telular, Behavioral Intervention, BlueTree, Digi Transport, Ambient and CalAmp.


 

Not everybody is impressed. Among those who weren't is GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham. After all, the list consists of fewer than 30 devices, some of which are not yet available. None are phones and they all are aimed at business. Perhaps the big gap between Verizon's offerings a year out and the market's expectations was a result of over-promising by the carriers or a lack of understanding by the press and public about the difficulty of opening networks in a safe and efficient manner.

 

The writer of this Gearlog post also makes the point that Verizon Wireless has approved no cell phones for its network. The certified devices are machine-to-machine class gear, including an "offender tracking wireless anklet" that, perhaps, Bernie Madoff is wearing right now. The point is that the carrier will drag its feet on certifying phones because of a reluctance to threaten its current stable of phones with a horde of new and no doubt innovative devices. Expect that passive/aggressive foot dragging to continue.

 

Clearly, the new head of the FCC has a lot of big issues to tackle. The opening of wireless networks certainly will not be at the top of the list, but it is an important future issue that will come up at his confirmation hearings and, providing he gets the job, early in his tenure.



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